The Scrapbook took note last week of plans in Venezuela to embalm the late strongman Hugo Chávez and put his corpse on permanent public display. This would have placed a comparatively tinhorn character in some fast historical company—Lenin, Mao, Ho Chi Minh, Kim Il Sung—and made his resting place a must-see on the Macabre Tourism trail (The Carcass of Caracas, Peasant Under Glass, and so on).
But, alas! The Scrapbook must report that it probably won’t happen. It seems that, according to his (interim) successor President Nicolás Maduro, “Russian and German scientists have arrived to embalm Chávez, and they tell us it’s very difficult because the process should have started earlier. . . . Maybe we can’t do it.” Which means that Chávez may soon be buried in the usual way, as he seems to have wished, in his provincial hometown of Sabaneta. And which also means that the scenes of celebrity mourning we had anticipated—Harry Belafonte throwing himself across the glass sarcophagus, Joe Kennedy in deep reverence, Oliver Stone prostrate at the foot of the monument—may never happen.
In the meantime, this subject has put The Scrapbook in an inquisitive mood. Just exactly who, or what, are the “Russian and German scientists” who have been called in to postpone Hugo Chávez’s decomposition? This sounds like a task not for “Russian and German scientists” but for somebody like Mr. Joyboy, the chief embalmer at Whispering Glades in Evelyn Waugh’s The Loved One, or the creator of the animatronic Abraham Lincoln at Disneyland.
For while The Scrapbook enjoys a postmortem joke as much as anyone—here is proof, at last, that Chávez really was rotten!—there is good reason why cadavers aren’t usually on indefinite display. It is widely assumed, for example, that the corpse of Lenin in Moscow’s Red Square is about as much “Lenin” as his wax representation at Madame Tussaud in London. Or consider “Mao” on his catafalque in Beijing. Sure, it looks like the Great Helmsman, more or less; but given the inexorable process of decay, and the imperfect science (if that’s the word for it) of mummification, you have to wonder just how much genuine Mao is to be seen in the so-called Mao-soleum—and how much is wax, sawdust, and high-fructose corn syrup.
Indeed, from The Scrapbook’s perspective, what’s interesting here is not so much the objects on exhibit as the instinct to preserve tyrants under glass. It is true that the remains of saints and martyrs are sometimes seen, largely as objects of veneration for the faithful. But what is the purpose of preserving, say, Ho Chi Minh’s dead body? For veneration—or to instill fear? It cannot be entirely coincidental that the characters on such public display—Ho, Lenin, Mao, Kim—are villains, not heroes, of history. The cult of personality that nourished them in life is embodied, and sustained, in death.
In that sense, it is entirely fitting that “Russian and German scientists” should be engaged in concocting some suitable representation of Hugo Chávez for public consumption. This sort of civic preservation is largely practiced under regimes, in which most humans would not choose to live. Or maybe Chávez will get lucky, and like the corpses of Stalin and Eva Perón, his personal contribution to the taxidermist’s art will be seen for awhile, but then happily disappear.