In A Nutshell
When famed composer and pianist Frederic Chopin was dying in Paris in 1849, he asked that his heart be removed from his body and buried in his native Poland. The heart was smuggled into Poland and kept at his family home for years until it was enshrined in a church pillar. From there, it was removed by the Nazis for safekeeping, later returned to the church, and then secretly exhumed in 2014 to check the condition of the tissue. Through it all, no invasive tests were performed to determine why Chopin died so young at age 39.
The Whole Bushel
When famed composer and pianist Frederic Chopin was dying in Paris in 1849, he asked that his heart be removed from his body and buried in his native Poland. And so began the wild journey of a heart that became Poland’s national treasure.
First, the heart was smuggled into Warsaw (past Russian border guards) by Chopin’s sister, Ludwika, probably under her clothing and possibly in a crystal jar of cognac. Then the heart stayed in the Chopin family’s home for years until it was enshrined in a stone pillar in the Holy Cross Church in central Warsaw. For most hearts, that would have been plenty of adventure. But for Chopin’s heart, it was just the beginning.
After the Nazis invaded Poland in World War II, they decided to exhume Chopin’s heart for safekeeping while the Warsaw Uprising of 1944 was in full swing. The Nazis systematically slaughtered living Poles as punishment for the rebellion while carefully preserving Chopin’s dead heart. Supposedly, they took special care with the heart because German composers influenced Chopin’s work, so Germans have a special affinity for him. When the uprising was over, the Nazis returned the heart to Holy Cross Church as a goodwill gesture. The priests took no chances; this time, they hid the heart until the war was over.
The heart was reinterred and, with the Nazis gone, you’d think it would finally rest in peace. But there are many scholars alive today who want to perform DNA tests on Chopin’s heart to determine why he died so young. Did he die of tuberculosis at 39 as most people believe or was it another illness, possibly cystic fibrosis, which was not known to the medical community at his time of death?
The church and the Polish government, who are custodians of the heart, have refused to grant permission for genetic testing. It’s believed that a distant relative of Chopin opposes invasive medical tests. However, on April 14, 2014, an official group of 13 people secretly exhumed the heart to check the condition of the tissue. They agreed to this superficial examination because a forensic scientist had expressed concern that the alcohol in the jar housing the heart may have evaporated. If so, the heart would dry up.
Fortunately, that hadn’t occurred. During the exam, the group took over 1,000 photographs of the heart, then attempted to better preserve it by adding hot wax to the glass jar’s seal so the liquid inside wouldn’t evaporate. No invasive tests were allowed.
Not everyone agrees with this noninvasive approach. “The mystery of this man’s illness lingers on—how he could survive for so long with such a chronic illness and how he could write pieces of such extraordinary beauty,” author Steven Lagerberg said. “It’s an intellectual puzzle, it’s a medical mystery and it’s an issue of great scientific curiosity.”
The next inspection of Chopin’s heart is scheduled for 2064. At least until then, the composer’s cause of death will remain a mystery.