Stiff challenge: How Kim Jong Il and other leaders join the ranks of the preserved

January 19, 2012

Last week, North Korean officials announced that the body of recently deceased leader Kim Jong Il would be permanently enshrined at Kumsusan Memorial Palace in the capital of Pyongyang. This act will give new meaning to the term “eternal leader.”

There is, however, historical precedent for this — an exclusive club of former dictators and world leaders whose bodies go on even as their lives don’t.

Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh has been on display for more than 30 years, as has Mao Zedong, the Communist Party leader of China, whose embalmers reportedly learned their preservation techniques from the Vietnamese, who had learned them from the Russians. English thinker Jeremy Bentham represents one of the few modern nonpolitical or nonreligious figures to receive the honor of postmortem display; he’s been sitting in London’s University College for more than 150 years. His head is wax now, though. The original mummification process in the 19th century went awry. It made his head look like a dried fig — go ahead, Google it — and said head was repeatedly stolen by pranking college students. Now, it’s tucked away in a safe in the archaeology department.

* * *

“Now, with typical embalming, in non-traumatized conditions, one would expect a body to be in good condition for weeks or even months,” Vernie Fountain says. He runs the Fountain National Academy of Professional Embalming Skills, which international students attend to learn the newest ways to make the dead look like the living. He is the National Funeral Directors Association’s go-to person on issues regarding body preservation.

What is happening with Kim is not, however, a typical embalming. The man is not being prepared for a viewing and burial (his funeral was in December) but rather for generations of glass-encased display.

Fountain ponders this problem. “You need some humidity. But not too much. A little less than 10 percent can help retard mold growth. I would expect that at some point in time, they’ll do touch-up work and re-preservation.”

Naturally. The proper amount of care does a body good. Consider Russian leader Vladi­mir Lenin­, who has been lying in state since he died in 1924. Visitors can stream in between 10 a.m. and 1 p.m.

“I’ve seen Lenin,” says Mary Roach, author of the modern death encyclopedia “Stiff.” “You have about 30 seconds to pretend to be paying your respects, when really you’re thinking, ‘How did they do that?’ You cannot embalm someone and have them look so good. There had to be some kind of Lenin Pledge Wax going on there.”

Some kind of something — though for decades nobody knew what it was. In 1999, the caretakers of the body published a book. “Lenin’s Embalmers” revealed the regimen, which included applications of mild bleach, a steady temperature of 61 degrees and prolonged soaks in glycerol and potassium acetate.

Lacking that knowledge in the 1950s, though, Argentines came up with their own technique.

“One mummy that people don’t talk much about is Evita Peron,” says Bob Brier, an Egyptologist who was so intrigued by ancient mummification techniques that he demonstrated them on a human cadaver now on exhibit at a San Diego museum. “The technique — they essentially removed all of the water in her cells and replaced them with wax. Basically, they turned her into a candle.”

The former first lady of Argentina, Brier says, “is probably the best-preserved mummy in the world.”

“I heard that her ear fell off,” Roach whispers, when informed of Brier’s opinion. “Or was it her nose?”

It was her finger. When the junta that overthrew Peron’s husband took over their residence, the corpse looked so well-preserved that the men thought it might be fake. They cut off a finger to check.

* * *

None of this was possible before embalming — a practice that, incidentally, became popular in the United States after it was performed on Abraham Lincoln. His remarkably intact body toured the country on a funeral train, Roach says, and in death, the Great Emancipator became the resting commercial poster president for preservation by arsenic — which, before the invention of formaldehyde, was a common ingredient in embalmings.

But the Egyptians were practicing mummification rituals millennia ago, and in the Christian church, there’s a long history of the display of bodies and body parts and a fascination with “uncorrupted” saints, whose bodies appear to exist in good condition without scientific assistance. Saint Polycarp is the first on record; after he was burned and stabbed to death by the Romans, his followers collected the remains, which, one remarked, were not at all charred but rather “like a loaf in the oven.” (Of course, there has always been an interesting relationship between bodies and bread. When Bishop Hugh of Lincoln bit off what was said to be one of the deceased Mary Magdalene’s fingers in the late 12th century, he defended the action by comparing it to the transubstantiation of Communion).

For centuries, proximity to relics such as these made common people feel closer to the divine.

It is these early religious traditions that may have prepared the way for the preservation of 20th-century political figures. Communism “may have chased out the church itself in Russia,” says Peter Manseau, a Washington College religion professor and author of “Rag and Bone: A Journey Among the World’s Holy Dead.” “But the practices remained. In some ways, the practices were more important than the beliefs.”

When Lenin died, Russian citizens begged for officials to find a way to preserve his body. “It’s a kind of storytelling,” Manseau says. “It’s a way of saying, this dear leader experiences death differently than the rest of us. He remains the future. Even though he’s dead.”

* * *

As for Kim Jong Il, there has been no word on what preservation technique the North Koreans will choose for his post-life presentation. “I think they’re going to bring the Russians in for this,” confides Brier, the Egyptologist. “That’s what they did with the last one.”

The last one he speaks of is Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Il’s father, who died in 1994 and was also preserved, laid out in the same palace that will reportedly house his son.

It is unclear whether the two men will be accorded their own chambers, or whether father and son will be placed in the same room, aged 82 and and 69 for all eternity.

Monica Hesse is a staff writer for the Post Style section. She frequently writes about culture, the Web and the intersection of the two.
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