Death becomes them

In the third of a three-part special (part one and part two here) on the fate of famous people’s bodies after death, today’s post looks five bodies that have been preserved for posterity. Enjoy all the waxy goodness. Or badness. Either way – its a quintet of shiny corpses.

Vladimir Lenin

With his distinct bald head, moustache and goatee, Lenin is perhaps the most famous corpse kept on permanent display. He never wanted it to be this way – his wife reported that he wanted to be buried alongside his mother in St. Petersburg.

Instead, the Communist elite renamed St. Petersburg to Leningrad and had his body prepared for display in Moscow. No-one was certain over the best way to preserve his remains and equipment for cryogenically freezing the dead leader was procured. In the end, a presumably terrified Professor Alexei Ivanovich Abrikosov was brought in embalm the corpse.

As techniques improved, it became clear that the preserved body of Lenin could be kept on permanent display. A suitably grand and sober mausoleum was built within the walls of the Kremlin, and since then millions of Russians and international visitors have quietly filed past the ghostly back-lit remains.

Lenin briefly had a companion in the form of Joseph Stalin, whose embalmed body was placed next to Lenin between 1953 and 1961. De-Stalinization resulted in the dictator’s corpse being buried in the Kremlin Wall Necropolis. Russia’s governing party is now questioning whether Lenin’s body should finally be buried.

Mao Zedong, Ho Chi Minh and the two Kims

Lenin’s preservation started a trend with communist leaders. As noted above, Stalin was embalmed and displayed before falling out of favour. The personality cults that grew up around Asia’s communist leaders ensured that they would continue to be venerated in death.

As with Lenin, Mao had shown no interest in being preserved and displayed. He was one of the first leaders to sign the “Proposal that all Central Leaders be Cremated after Death” in November 1956. This wish was not, however, politically expedient to the various factions seeking to use his body as a potent symbol.

Mao now lies preserved in a crystal coffin at the heart of the Chairman Mao Memorial Hall, itself in the centre of Tiananmen Square in Beijing. The funeral display is a testament to the organisational power of the Chinese state. Over 20 crystal coffins were provided by various factories and workshops from which one was judged the best.

Ho Chi Minh had similarly signalled his wish to be cremated, but was instead embalmed and displayed in the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum in Hanoi. Ho’s wishes were far more poetic – he asked for his ashes to be scattered across hills in north, central and south Vietnam. He noted that cremation was: “more hygienic than burial and would also save land for agricultural purposes.”

No piece on communist mausoleums would be complete without mention of the Kumsusan Memorial Palace. North Korea’s curious hereditary communist state features a suffocatingly pervasive personality cult around the Kim Family. The Kumsusan Palace was once Kim Il-sung’s official residence, but was transformed into a mausoleum after his death by his son. The son, Kim Jong-il, has now joined him in the world’s largest communist leader’s mausoleum.

Jeremy Bentham

Preservation and public display is not the exclusive preserve of communists or even politicians. One of the most famous bodies available for viewing is that of the philosopher Jeremy Bentham. Unlike Lenin, Mao and Ho, Bentham’s will specifically provided for the unusual treatment of his remains.

His body was to be subject to a public anatomy lecture, and then displayed in a wooden cabinet called the ‘Auto-icon’. The Auto-icon now resides at University College London, an institution he was involved with. His story is taken up in verse by UCL’s college song:

“Then, lying on his deathbed, Jeremiah made a will:  Said he “Preserve my body with the utmost of your skill,  And place me in the library that all may see me still,  A hundred years from now.”

Bentham can be seen sitting in the South Cloisters of UCL’s main college building in Bloomsbury. The Auto-icon was brought out for UCL’s centenary and sesquicentenary college committee meeting, were he was recorded in the official minutes as being “present but not voting’”.

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