Venezuela’s government has announced that it plans to embalm the body of recently deceased leader Hugo Chavez, so that it may be displayed in a glass coffin “eternally” and inspire Venezuelans to keep the socialist revolution alive.
Comandante Chavez joins a long line of 20th century world leaders whose remains have achieved immortality. The first was Soviet Union founder Vladimir Lenin, who died soon after the discovery of Tutankhamen’s tomb and is still on display in Moscow’s Red Square. Ho Chi Minh and Mao Zedong are two revolutionaries whose corpses receive daily visitors in their respective glass sarcophagi; Joseph Stalin’s body was displayed along with Lenin’s from 1953 to 1961, when it was removed and buried.
But let’s face it – it’s cold in Russia, not so much in Venezuela. Some have speculated that the decision was made too late in Chavez’ case, and that preserving his body to withstand the South American climate is no longer feasible. What extreme measures must be taken to ensure a corpse will survive decades, even centuries?
Why do some political regimes feel the need to keep an embalmed leader above ground? Is it to remind the people who’s in charge? If a powerful symbol of the movement is needed, would a statue do? Would you visit the tomb of one of your heroes to see his or her body on display?
Nina Tumarkin, Russian Historian and Professor of History, Wellesley College; author of "The Living and the Dead: The Rise and Fall of the Cult of World War II in Russia" and "Lenin Lives! The Lenin Cult in Soviet Russia"