In A Nutshell
Lenin is the poster child for long-term embalming. For 90 years, his handlers have kept his body looking relatively the same, although everything is not as it appears. They re-embalm Lenin’s entire body every two years, giving him microinjections, or booster shots, of embalming fluid between those times. They also replace his body parts as needed. From the 1950s to the 1980s, as many as 200 people worked at Lenin’s mummy lab, much of it on research. In the 1990s, they suffered funding cuts, but private contributions allowed the lab to continue its work.
The Whole Bushel
When Abraham Lincoln was assassinated, his body traveled by train through seven states to Illinois for burial. While in various cities, his handlers would take his corpse off the train and set it up for public display in a state house or town hall. Sometimes, his body was on view for as long as 24 hours at a time.
An embalmer was with him, but techniques weren’t advanced enough to cover those conditions and that amount of time. Many US citizens had never seen the president before, so they didn’t know what to expect. The ones who had seen him were disturbed by the way he looked. After all, refrigeration hadn’t been invented yet.
By some accounts, Lincoln’s body was in decent condition in Baltimore, Harrisburg, and Philadelphia. But his face turned into “a ghastly shadow” after 23 hours in the open air of Manhattan. As eager as people were to see their fallen president, his face had visibly decayed, discolored, and shrunk.
If today’s embalming methods had been available, would he have been a leader put on permanent public display? It seems doubtful in the US. But in some countries with dictatorships or the effective equivalent, it’s been done since 1924. It seems that certain world leaders simply can’t accept that it’s time to go.
Vladimir Lenin, the founder of the Soviet Union, started the trend in January 1924. In Russia, his display is almost considered a shrine. (We’ll talk about how his body stays so April fresh in a moment.) Starting in March 1953, Josef Stalin’s embalmed body was shown next to Lenin. But he fell from grace posthumously, so Soviet officials had his body buried in 1961.
Ho Chi Minh, the revolutionary leader of Vietnam, had his body put on display in Hanoi in August 1975. His mausoleum is actually considered a tourist attraction. Not to be outdone by the others, Mao Zedong, the father of the People’s Republic of China, went on permanent public view in September 1977. Both Kim Il Sung, the founding father of North Korea, and his son Kim Jong Il were displayed in July 1995 and December 2012, respectively. Finally, Venezuela put Hugo Chavez’s body on permanent display in March 2013.
So how do these world leaders avoid the Lincoln effect?
Lenin is the poster child for long-term embalming. For 90 years, his handlers have kept his body looking relatively the same, although everything is not as it appears. When Lenin first died in 1924, the weather in Moscow was cold enough to slow the decay of his body. But over time, his mummy team has experimented with new techniques to keep him looking good (if a corpse can ever look good).
They re-embalm Lenin’s entire body every two years, giving him microinjections, or booster shots, of embalming fluid between those times. Occasionally, they use a rubber suit to hold the fluid over Lenin’s body when it’s on public display. They also replace his body parts with plastic ones (or parts made of other materials) when necessary, including his eyelashes.
In the early years, the team had a continuing problem with wrinkles and mold on certain unnamed parts of Lenin’s corpse. So they created an artificial skin that they can patch over relevant body parts when needed. They’ve also resculpted much of Lenin’s face to regain something closer to its original appearance. To keep his skin from caving in like Lincoln’s, Lenin’s team has substituted a mixture of carotene, glycerin, and paraffin for his body fat.
This is not a job for one person, though. From the 1950s to the 1980s, as many as 200 people worked at Lenin’s mummy lab, much of it on research. In the 1990s, they suffered funding cuts, but private contributions allowed the lab to continue its work.
Show Me The Proof
Featured photo credit: L. Leonidov
Smithsonian: Meet the Group of Scientists That Keeps Lenin’s 90-Year-Old Corpse Fresh
Scientific American: Lenin’s Body Improves with Age
Washington Post: A photographic guide to the world’s embalmed leaders
Associated Press: Other world leaders whose bodies are on display