Photo-snapping, status-updating, fridge-magnet-collecting travellers may find that a visit to see some of the 20th century’s most prominent political leaders could teach them a thing or two about self-preservation.
Embalming is the art and science of preserving the human form by treating the remains to fight decomposition. With a sprinkle of bleach, a bath of glycerol, potassium acetate and formalin, and a little temperature and humidity control, a body can lie in state for, well, more than a lifetime.
Perhaps refrain from eating anything as you read on.
Vladimir Lenin died on 21 January 1924. He wished to be cremated, but Josef Stalin insisted he be embalmed and lay in state. His embalming was the first of its kind, and befittingly my introduction to this strange practice.
From mummification and cryonics to burials and tombstones, it’s not so unusual to leave a footprint behind, but embalming has a shockingly visceral quality: it involves draining vessels and veins, replacing blood with chemicals, and altering the immediate environment to stop the spread of bacteria. This rigorous process arrests decomposition for a few months, which is a problem for those with their sights set on eternity. To ensure longer preservation, constant upkeep is required.
Lenin’s body has been on public display in Moscow’s Red Square since his death. His mausoleum sits at the foot of the Kremlin. It is a simple Soviet structure that incorporates architectural elements from ancient mausoleums. Thousands of people visited Lenin’s body in the weeks following his death, and millions more in the subsequent decades. Lenin is only viewable for a few hours a day, a few days a week, a few months a year. Every once in a while, he leaves his glass sarcophagus for running repairs. So it was lucky that he was taking visitors during my stay.
An official explained that Lenin is embalmed at a cellular level, which means his hair and fingernails still grow. As I stepped inside the mausoleum, I couldn’t shake the image of being the person whose job it was to shave Lenin’s dead face. Standing at the feet of this giant of 20th-century history, illuminated in a dark room as if he were an exhibit at a museum, a chill crept down my spine. But nothing lasts forever, and it wasn’t long before I was eating McDonald’s, then heading off to drink mojitos at a Cuban bar called Che in the city centre.
Mao Zedong had helped found the Communist Party of China by the time Lenin died. Over the following 25 years, at the culmination of a number of wars, he played a pivotal part in establishing the People's Republic of China, which he led as Chairman until his death. A controversial figure, Mao is credited for modernising China, while chastised for human rights abuses. The phrase “Long Live Chairman Mao for 10,000 years” was a common utterance during his tenure, so it should come as no surprise he was embalmed upon his death in 1976.
In the wake of the Cold War and Sino-Soviet split, Chinese doctors refused to call for assistance from the experienced Russians and decided upon a DIY route. According to the macabre memoirs of Mao’s doctor, they pumped so much formula into his corpse that the skin broke and preserving fluids oozed from his pores. Naturally, I couldn’t resist paying the Great Helmsman a visit during my stay in Beijing.
By the time I arrived a gigantic line had formed in Tiananmen Square outside the mausoleum, known as the Chairman Mao Memorial Hall. It took me 10 minutes to clear security and reach the back of the line, which, like an optical illusion, became longer as I approached. The only Westerner in sight, I passed through a second round of security where visitors could buy flowers for ¥3, the first of a handful of opportunities to do so. A statue of Mao against the far wall dominated the large entrance hall of the mausoleum. At this point, those with flowers (several bunches in many cases) had a chance to place them in an arrangement in front of the statue.
The crowd was then rushed into the next chamber and filed past a waxy-looking Mao in the centre. Rumours abound that this is just a wax figure and, having seen a few other embalmed leaders and visited Madame Tussauds, I share the scepticism. After what couldn’t have been more than 10 seconds in Mao’s presence, officials ushered the crowd out toward multiple stalls selling tacky souvenirs. I bought a miniature solar-powered flashing portrait of Mao on a red ornamental string to hang from my car’s rear-view mirror.
Unlike the Chinese, the North Koreans called for some Russian assistance during their foray into embalming. Reports suggest that when the founding father of North Korea Kim Il-sung was preserved in 1994, it cost as much as US$1 million – spent at a time when the country was on the verge of famine.
In a nation fond of superlatives, the “Kumsusan Sun Memorial Palace” didn’t disappoint. Visitors have to dress for the occasion: on the day I went, a group of dishevelled foreigners made their way towards the mausoleum, wearing odd combinations of creased short-sleeved collared shirts, odd-coloured ties, cargo pants and practical shoes.
The first thing that struck me was the sheer size of the building: it was literally a palace, and served as Kim Il-sung's official residence before his death. Personal belongings were a no-go; a guard confiscated a tea bag from a tourist ahead of me. After walking across automatic shoe cleaners and being blasted by giant high-powered fans, we embarked on what might be the longest travelator in the world. Photos of the leaders adorned the walls. I noticed that Kim Jong-il always wore Cuban heels; next time you see a photo of the Dear Leader, look down.
Finally, led by a theatrical, melancholic usher, we arrived at Kim Il-sung’s viewing chamber. We kept straight faces for the bowing-related instructions, which required a high degree of concentration. After an opportunity to bow to Kim Il-sung in the flesh, we moved into the awards room, filled with hundreds of medals from North Korea and around the world. After leaving this room, we rinsed and repeated the experience for Kim Jong-il: a big room containing his body, followed by a big awards room, where some of the awards were essentially given to Kim Jong-il by his dad. And then things really took a turn for the weird.
The next suite of rooms are a bit of a blur. The first contained a train. An actual train. Apparently the train that was used by Kim Il-sung. The world map on the wall had blinking lights indicating all the train journeys taken by the Great Leader. The next room was the car room; I don’t think I need to elaborate. Then, in case we hadn’t had our fill, we visited the equivalent rooms in relation to Kim Jong-il.
The highlight was the boat room, purpose-built to house Kim Jong-il’s luxury yacht. The floor was painted to resemble an ocean, with papier-mâché waves lapping at the boat, and lights flashed on the masthead. I imagined the scores of citizens that had come from their Pyongyang apartments to catch a glimpse.
Other notable members of the embalmy army
- Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam: Ho Chi Minh was another leader embalmed against his wishes after his death in 1969. His body remains on display in Hanoi’s Ba Dinh Square, the country’s ceremonial heart.
- Ferdinand Marcos, The Philippines: The body of Ferdinand Marcos, the president of The Philippines from 1965 until 1986, has been on display in Batac City on the island of Luzon since 1993.
- Jeremy Bentham, UK: After his body was dissected as part of an anatomy lecture at his own request, philosopher and social reformer Jeremy Bentham’s skeleton and head were subsequently preserved and put on display at University College London.