Friday, March 15, 2013

Embalming World Leaders, Long-Term

Embalming is the act of preserving a body for a short period of time so that the remains may be placed on display at a viewing or funeral.

Egyptian Embalming
Embalming has been practiced since ancient times. The Egyptians are best known for their embalming (mummification) customs.  The embalming process is similar to pickling food – a way to keep something preserved for a short period of time.

King Tut
King Tutankhamen’s tomb was discovered in 1922, in the Valley of the Kings.  The fact that his body had been preserved by mummification presented an opportunity for governments to consider the same being done for certain world leaders, with the goal of preserving them for thousands of years.

Sister Bernadette Soubirous
Placing a body on long-term display became a tradition with Catholic saints and popes.  But the bodies did not last, and therefore did not remain on display permanently.

Civil War Embalming
Civil War Soldier
The necessity of finding a way to preserve remains for a certain length of time became crucial during the American Civil War.  Families wanted their soldiers returned home for burial.  Dr. Thomas Holmes, a surgeon with the Army Medical Corps began the process of embalming dead Union soldiers so their remains could be sent back to their families.

Lincoln's Funeral Train
Embalmed Lincoln
These embalming methods made it possible for the body of President Abraham Lincoln to be viewed enroute across the country, as it was returned to Springfield, Illinois for interment. When Lincoln’s coffin was opened 36 years later, his features were still recognizable.

19th Century Embalming Fluids
The main ingredients used in embalming during the Civil War were alcohol and arsenic salts.  Then in 1867, a German chemist discovered formaldehyde, and the process of modern embalming began.

Crowds Wait to see Lenin
Vladimir Lenin
Long-term embalming for public display became accepted when Soviet founder Vladimir Lenin died in 1924. Over 3-million showed up to say farewell to their leader.

The exact techniques used by the Russians for long-term embalming have remained secret. However, it is known that the procedure involves removing the organs, dissolving the veins, and extracting blood from the tissues.  The body is then placed in a vat of embalming fluid where the temperature and humidity levels are closely watched and controlled. After six months, the body has soaked up enough of the embalming fluid to preserve it for a longer period of time.  The formaldehyde-based embalming fluid changes the chemical composition of the body and gets rid of bacteria so that mold can’t grow. This helps prevent decomposition from occurring. 

Mortuary Artist at Work
Once the body has been embalmed, mortuary artists are brought in to make the deceased look more lifelike with the use of cosmetics, hair, and clothing.  The products used are in keeping with the local climate, and conditions that the body will be subjected to.

Climate Controlled
Long-term embalming does not stop decomposition; it only slows it down.  The embalming process must be reapplied periodically in order to keep the body maintained, and the remains must be kept in a climate controlled, sterile environment.

Lenin's 'Bath'
Lenin in 1991
Lenin also has his own embalming maintenance team at the Research Institute for Biological Structures in Moscow.  His body is inspected twice a week, and his hands and face are then cleaned with a special solution.  Every 12 to 18 months, Lenin’s body is immersed in an embalming solution bath to soak for 30 days.  It is then placed back on display in a glass sarcophagus that protects it from bacteria.

Since Lenin’s embalming, several Communist and Socialist leaders have been put on public display.  The list includes:

Argentinean Vice President Eva Peron in 1952.

Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin in 1953.

Vietnamese revolutionary leader Ho Chi Ming in 1969.


Leader of the People’s Republic of China, Chairman Mao Zedong in 1976.

Exiled Filipino dictator Ferdinand Marcos in 1989.

North Korean leader Kim Il-sung in 1994.

His son, Kim Jong-il in 2011. 

Chavez at Funeral
Hugo Chavez
Now plans are underway to embalm Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who died on March 5th, 2013.  Once embalmed, Chavez’s remains would lay in a glass case on public display, permanently.

Lenin's Mausoleum
Ho Chi Ming Museum
Most embalmed leaders were laid to rest in a mausoleum or military museum where generations of the faithful could visit.  Only Lenin, Ho Chi Ming, Kim Il-sung, and Kim Jong-il are still in presentable condition and on display.  (Ho Chi Ming is also treated to a special ‘bath’ once a year in Moscow.)

Stalin at Kremllin Wall
Lenin and Stalin
Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin was embalmed and put on display next to Lenin in 1953.  The Soviet government ordered Stalin’s body removed from the mausoleum in 1961 as part of the de-Stalinization of the country.  He was quietly interred in the Kremlin Wall Necropolis, outside the walls of the Kremlin.

Communist Leaders
The decision to embalm Chavez is considered to be an endeavor to elevate him to the ranks of the high communist.  As to who will do the embalming process – no one has yet been officially announced, although a Filipino mortuary artist, Frank Malabed has volunteered. 

Attending Lenin
The Russian specialists who care for Lenin’s body are considered to be the best at this type of long-term preservation, and have also sent word of their interest to help. 

Lenin On Display
Lenin’s embalming process is still one of the best examples of long-term embalming ever done.  But since the fall of Communism in 1991, the government no longer funds the preservation work.  Now the continued maintenance is paid for by private funds and donations. There has even been talk of deconstructing Lenin’s Mausoleum and burying his remains in a tomb. 

As they say, “Nothing lasts forever…”

~ Joy

To view the process of Lenin’s yearly ‘bath’, 


  1. Very informative blog if a little creepy for my liking. The thought of those preserved bodies bake my skin crawl. Still bno worse than seeing the shrunken heads at the Pit Rivers in Oxford.

    1. I know, Bill. The research was interesting, too! ; )