How to preserve your former leader’s body for future generations

Lenin and Mao lying in state
Lenin and Mao lying in state
Image: AP Photos
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Hugo Chávez will be displayed in a glass coffin

Taking a page from an earlier generation of socialist leaders, the embalmed body of recently deceased populist Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez will be permanently displayed in a glass casket so that “his people will always have him.”

Chávez is joining something of a resurgence in displaying the corpses of authoritarian leaders. The body of Kim Jong-Il, the North Korean dictator who died in December 2011, was put on display last year at Kumsusan Memorial Palace, in Pyongyang, near the mortal remains of his dictator father.

But the practice began back in 1924, when Vladimir Lenin’s corpse was plunked down under glass in Red Square, where it remains to this day. (Joseph Stalin was a temporary roommate: His corpse debuted in 1953, but he was quietly removed and buried eight years later.) Other communist corpses that remain prominently displayed include China’s Mao Zedong in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square and Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh in Hanoi.

Of course, keeping a corpse’s appearance up to snuff isn’t easy, and as you can imagine, much of the technical expertise came from the original experiment on Lenin. Back in 2004, Knight Ridder offered some grisly details of the work required to keep Lenin looking presentable. Based on that reporting, here’s some advice:

  1. Don’t go with a freezer. That was the original plan for Lenin, but his body began to deteriorate before it could be built.
  2. But do pay attention to temperature: Lenin’s glass sarcophagus is kept at 61 degrees Fahrenheit (16° C) with a humidity between 80% and 90%.
  3. Keep your leader’s skin looking good with bleach, which prevents fungus and mold, and filtered lighting, which gives Lenin a warm glow.
  4. It’s important to keep the body moisturized. Lenin gets a complete once-over every week.
  5. But sometimes, more extreme measures are necessary: Every 18 months, Lenin gets a 30-day bath of glycerol and potassium acetate, which moisturizes the skin and gives him a more lifelike appearance.
  6. When in doubt, put a call into a laboratory in Moscow known as Medical Biological Technologies, which manages Lenin’s body. “Created with Soviet government funds, it has fallen on hard times since the collapse of the Soviet Union and now relies on private donations,” reported the Globe and Mail last year. They’d probably be thrilled to have a new client.