The powers-that-be in Venezuela have decided to have their late president Hugo Chavez embalmed so that his body can remain on display “for all eternity”. His corpse joins a select club of embalmees (I think I just made that word up), and we have one of them here in Beijing.
Chairman Mao’s body lies in a vast, specially constructed, mausoleum in the center of Tian’anmen Square, and for two hours twice a day the building is opened for visitors to file past and view him.
It is ironic that he is there, as he had stipulated that after death his body should be cremated – indeed he was on record for saying “To chant ‘long live’ is to contradict natural laws. Everyone has to die…after people die, they shouldn’t be allowed to occupy any more space. They should be cremated. I’ll take the lead. We should all be burnt after we die, turned into ashes and used for fertilizer.”
There are several tales about the embalming of Mao, the most authoritative coming from his personal doctor Li Zhisui 李志绥 who was instructed to carry it out, following the Politburo’s decision to override Mao’s own wishes. At the time, the Russians were the experts as they had embalmed both Lenin and Stalin, but Sino-Soviet relations were in a critical phase – virtually a complete split – so they could not be asked to help. Instead the Chinese turned to the North Vietnamese who had their leader Ho Chi Minh embalmed.
Ho Chi Minh’s air-tight crystal casket had been supplied by Russia, but no-one in China knew how to make such a casket. The casket made for Mao was rumoured to be less than air-tight. Then there was the problem of the actual embalming process, the Vietnamese had been given advice and assistance by the Russians, and they passed what information they had on to China. Probably not the ideal way of learning how to undertake a delicate and complex procedure.
The medical team charged with undertaking the embalming worked from an article in a western journal which they had found in their archives. This said that 12-16 liters of formaldehyde should be injected within 4-8 hours of death. To be on the safe side they injected 22 liters. As Li Zhisui wrote in his book ‘The Private Life of Chairman Mao’, ‘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.’ The process of preparing Mao for public viewing took a year, with a tube which had been inserted into his neck allowing the team to top up the formaldehyde from time to time. What a grisly business. Despite their best endeavours, the mausoleum has had periods of time where it has been closed whilst repairs are carried out to Mao’s body, it is rumoured that an ear, part of a cheek, and the nose fell off, and have now been replaced with wax. They would have been better off going to Mme Tussaud’s and getting a really good effigy made in the first place.
My daughter and I visited Mao’s mausoleum way back in 1997. Then as now the queues were incredibly long.
Tourists from abroad mingled with parties of excited school kids, and families from the countryside who had come in by bus, specially dressed up in their finest clothes; old folk who had lived through the Mao years; adolescents with their walkmen plugged in twitching to the beat of inaudible music – anyone and everyone was waiting in line. When the doors opened things progressed quite quickly and once inside you realised why. Guarded by smartly dressed PLA soldiers, you have no time to stand and gawp as you are moved forward at a brisk pace, getting only a few seconds to take in the rather un-natural looking head of the man who changed China.
Why it is that nations with socialist or communist regimes should set so much store by having their dead leaders embalmed and on display I have no idea, but Russia, North Korea, China, North Vietnam and the Philippines have all done it – sometimes more than once, and now Venezuela is going to join the list. They must think there is some advantage in doing it, but for the life of me I can’t think what it is.
Poor President Chavez, I hope his nose doesn’t fall off.