Well travelled corpses

Political turmoil can result in thousands, even millions, of people being displaced and becoming refugees. Driven into cross-border wanderings or beating a hasty exile, they form a diaspora that is testament in misery to the upheaval in their homeland.

But it is not only the living that are affected by such devastating changes in the political wind. The bodies of the politically active or symbolic can also find their endless rest interrupted. They become peripatetic corpses, facing ignominious disinterment and reinterment as they are taken on a macabre procession around the world.

In this second part of a three part special on the fate of the famous after death, we consider four of the world’s well travelled corpses.

Eva “Evita” Duarte Peron

“Santa Santa Evita

Madre de todos los ninos

De los tiranizados, de los descamisados

De los trabajadores, de la Argentina”

 Evita – the Musical

Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical Evita clearly demonstrates the ambiguous legacy of the self-proclaimed First Lady of the Argentine People. To some, especially her ‘shirtless’ supporters amongst the poor, she was a saint. To others, she was a grasping social climber with a magpie like eye for pretty things propelled by a relentless but vacuous personality cult.

Her body was embalmed: “Hair, eyes, face, makeup – all must be preserved”, is solemnly chanted by the morticians in the musical. She was intended for display, so that the miracle of her life could continue to give political sustenance to her husband long after her untimely death (she died of cancer at just 33).

If things had gone as planned her mausoleum would have been larger than the Statue of Liberty. But not even the saintly remains of Evita could keep her husband, Juan Peron, in power. Over time, his popularity waned and he was ousted in a similarly abrupt manner to his assumption of power in 1944.

Evita’s body was no longer welcome or safe in Argentina, and was packed up for burial. The military junta was now in a bind. It did not want to bury Evita as it worried about created a Peronist shrine. But it could not simply dispose of the body by less acceptable methods – this could spark a riot. In the end it was decided that Evita would be buried, but safely away from Argentina and her beloved descamisados.

She was sent to Italy, a country were anti-fascist sentiment was well entrenched after the overthrow of Mussolini. She lay under a grave marked by the fake Italian name Maria Maggi. Evita was only at peace for about 15 years before being disinterred and flown to Spain to be close to the now exiled Juan Peron.

Eventually Peron returned to power in Argentina, and insisted on repatriated the body of his wife. She returned, and is now safely and securely interred in the Duarte family tomb.

Tsar Nicholas II

Tsar Nicholas II has enjoyed something of a reputational rehabilitation in death. In life, he was the unfortunate incumbent of a crumbling autocracy in a Russia boiling with revolutionary discontent. The horrors of the subsequent Soviet state softened the people’s attitudes to Tsarism, and turned Nicholas from a bloody tyrant well deserving of his remote execution into a holy martyr.

In 1917, with Russia embroiled in a brutal and failing military campaign against Germany and Russia, the streets of St. Petersburg erupted into violent revolution. The royal family was hastily evacuated to the supposed safety of Tsarkoe Selo – the Russian equivalent of Potsdam or Versailles.

But this distance couldn’t keep the Emperor out of the hands of the increasingly powerful revolutionary movement. He became a prisoner first of the Provisional Government and then of the Bolsheviks after their October 1917 assumption of power. The royal family were dispatched to remote locations to keep them out of reach of the large cities and the loyalist White Russian forces.

A relatively comfortable exile in Tobolsk was replaced by more rudimentary conditions in Yekaterinburg in a residence ominously called the ‘House of Special Purpose’. As the Bolsheviks consolidated their hold on power in the centre, but were encircled by increasingly bold White Russian forces, including the ferociously effective Czech Legion. In May – June 1918 these forces came dangerously close to Yekaterinburg and liberating the Tsar.

The Bolshevik response was immediate and brutal. The entire royal family was herded into the cellar of their house. Tsar Nicholas II, Tsarina Alexandre, the sickly Tsarevich Alexei and his four sisters, the Grand Duchesses Anastasia, Tatiana, Olga, and Maria, were then shot and bayoneted with gory completeness.

Their bodies were thrown into unmarked and shallow graves in the surrounding forests. Soon after, the Czech Legion succeeded in taking Yekaterinburg and discovered the grisly fate of the former Imperial family.

Nicholas II and his family would remain in their unconsecrated, unmarked and forlorn graves for the duration of Soviet rule in Russia. It was only on the fall of communism that events were set in motion that would see Nicholas II rehabilitated. The remains in the forest of Yekaterinburg were identified and corroborated using DNA sampling from surviving descendants in the British Royal Family. The bodies of the former imperial family were then returned to the former imperial capital of St. Petersburg to be buried at the Cathedral of St. Peter and St. Paul in 1998.


As if to demonstrate that it was not only the members of the royal family and the aristocracy whose bodies would suffer under the Soviet regime, even Josef Stalin’s remains would be moved after Stalinism was denounced by Khrushchev in his famous ‘secret speech’ on 25 February 1956.

On Stalin’s death he had been embalmed and placed next to Lenin in the Mausoleum at the heart of the Kremlin. By putting himself side by side with Lenin, Stalin had elevated himself to the heart of the communist pantheon – equal to the eternal Marx and Lenin.

Marxism-Leninism-Stalinism never took off, and the Stalin’s reputation would soon come under intense scrutiny following Khrushchev’s denunciation in the 20th Soviet Congress. Stalin’s body would soon bear the brunt of this official historical revision. His remains were removed from Lenin’s side and quietly interred in the Kremlin Walls necropolis. It was a more peaceful and dignified resting place than he had allowed millions of the victims of famine, purge and plot.

Louis XIV and Marie Antoinette

Louis XIV and Marie Antoinette remains followed a similar trajectory to those of the Russian royal family – executed and unceremoniously discarded followed by rehabilitation and veneration and ultimately a saintly interment at the Cathedral Basilica of St. Denis (Cathédrale royale de Saint-Denis).

St Denis was long the repository for the mortal remains of the Kings and Queens of France. The addition of Louis XIV next to his royal ancestors marked a remarkable transformation in his reputation. From the despised oppressor of the sans-coulottes he gradually became seen as a bungling, spendthrift autocrat and was finally viewed by many as a naive innocent swept by political, economic and social currents he neither understood nor controlled.

Marie-Antoinette was, if anything, an even greater target of the people’s anger. It is her that was famously reported to have callously uttered: “let them eat bread” when faced with the spectre of hungry peasants (we will set aside for the moment the fabrications and propaganda that swirled around this simple statement).

But as Madame Capet, she went to the guillotine with a quiet and resigned dignity that impressed the crowd. Was she really the frivolous, unsympathetic spoilt child of legend, or a more complex character struggling to cope with the monumental wrenches of the revolution?