When Hugo Chavez’s embalmed body is laid in a glass casket sometime next week, he will join at least eight other world leaders whose remains are on display for all eternity … or at least for as long as their keepers can preserve them.
Vice President Nicolas Maduro announced Thursday that Chavez’s body would be on permanent display at the Museum of the Revolution so that “his people will always have them.” While that idea may sound grotesque, it’s also not particularly novel.
The Russians, arguably the ones who perfected the practice, have put both Vladimir Lenin and Joseph Stalin on long-term display. Lenin’s body has been embalmed in a large tomb near the Kremlin since shortly after his death in 1924, preserved by a steady 61 degree temperature and a strict regimen of mild bleachings and soaks in glycerol and potassium acetate.
According to Time, Stalin’s embalmed body also laid near Lenin’s for about 10 years, but was hastily reburied under cover of darkness when the government tried to squash his cult of personality in the early ’60s.
The Russians seem to have inspired the North Koreans to similar displays. In 1994, a Russian team helped preserve the body of Kim Il-sung, North Korea’s founding president, the New York Times reports.
When Kim Jong Il died in late 2011, Russian scientists again went to Pyongyang to assist in the embalming; the late leader lies in a glass sarcophagus with filtered lights to keep his face looking rosy.
But Kim Jong Il and his father were by no means the first Asian leaders to get the Chavez treatment. The Vietnamese revolutionary Ho Chi Minh, who died in 1969, is displayed in a mausoleum in Hanoi modeled after Lenin’s. Since “Uncle Ho” died in the midst of the Vietnam War, his embalmers had to work in a cave in the North Vietnamese jungle, the New York Times reports.
One of the scientists who worked on him told the Times: “Not every expert is allowed to restore such treasured historical objects, like a Raphael or a Rembrandt. Those who do it, we tremble. I feel a great responsibility in my hands.” This video shows the changing of the guard outside Ho Chi Minh’s tomb.
Socialist leader Mao Zedong has lain in state in a mausoleum on Beijing’s Tiananmen Square since May 1977. According to Time, Soviet-Chinese tensions forced Mao’s embalmers to ask the Vietnamese, not the Russians, for advice — a plan that misfired slightly when the Vietnamese could not explain how to build an air-tight coffin.