Hugo Chavez Embalmed: Other World Leaders Who Have Gone On Display

The Gruesome Work Of Embalming

Hugo Chavez is to have the somewhat dubious honour of joining the "controversial embalmed corpses of leaders" club, it was announced on Friday.

Some of the world's fiercest dictators and ideological leaders have had their waxen remains placed in glass coffins for the faithful to shuffle past.

But to keep leaders like China's Mao and Russia's Lenin fresh from decay involves an intense and costly process.

Putting public figures on display has a long tradition, says Dr John Troyer, deputy director at the Centre for Death and Society at the University of Bath.

"There was a tradition of putting Catholic saints' bodies on display for pilgrims to visit, although they were never intended to be displayed permanently.

"In modern times, that has been the preserve of these iconoclastic leaders. But the body will always slowly decay, no matter how carefully preserved, over many decades on display. It happened, for example, with the body of Lenin, his ear fell off and had to be glued back on," he told HuffPost UK.

The mortician who embalmed Filipino dictator Ferdinand Marcos has already offered up his services in Venezuela, according to AFP. Frank Malabed said he was "always expecting a call. I will process anyone, anywhere."

He described his particular brand of embalming: “You need to inject fluid into the arteries after draining blood from the veins. You use a hypodermic needle for that. Then you replenish it regularly. It has to be checked regularly to arrest any sign of decomposition.

“In the case of president Marcos, it was difficult work. He was a vegetable. The body was full of oedema (fluid),” he said.

Dr Troyer told HuffPost UK that methods of embalming have stayed quite consistent since the mid 19th century. "It's usually formaldehyde injected into the body, nowadays via an electrical pump. Sometimes a red dye is used to give the body a more natural skin tone."

The world's most expert embalmers are the Russians. Ilya Zbarsky, a member of Lenin's embalming maintenance team, told the BBC in an interview in 1999: "Twice a week, we would soak the face and the hands with a special solution. We could also improve some minor defects. Once a year the mausoleum was closed and the body was immersed in a bath with this solution."

China's Mao reportedly demanded before his death that he should be cremated, not embalmed, but his instructions were promptly ignored after his death. In a book, 'The Private Life Of Chairman Mao', the embalmers revealed that they had "no idea" how they would manage to preserve the body for so long.

Mao was injected with formaldehyde, but Zhisui Li described: "The results were shocking. Mao's face was bloated, as round as a ball, and his neck was now the width of his head. His skin was shiny and the formaldehyde oozed from his pores like perspiration. His ears were swollen, too, sticking out at right angles. The corpse was grotesque. The guards and attendants were aghast."

The men had to massage the dead body to get the swelling down, and pieces of Mao's cheek and ears reportedly fell off, having to be covered with make-up. A wax copy of the body was made, in case the embalmed body was unusable.

Still, the embalming has been more successful than that of Klement Gottwald, the communist president of Czechoslovakia. He was embalmed in 1953 but soon decomposed so badly his legs had to be replaced by artificial limbs. By 1962, his abdomen, torso and arms had decayed irreparably and he was cremated.

And do ordinary, but wealthy, people ever opt for embalming? "There's a tradition of some, shall we say eccentric, individual who have put their bodies on display. One example is Jeremy Bentham, the British philosopher and founder of University College London, whose skeleton and head are preserved in his 'Auto-Icon' cabinet.

"But embalming itself is not something really done by normal people, there'd always have to be upkeep done by relatives."


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