There’s nothing new about trying to keep old, dead iconic autocrats around; the Egyptians came close to perfecting the process more than 3,000 years ago, after all. What differs now is the lack of the bling, the box and pointy building.
These days there seems to be the thought that people will actually yearn to be very close to a lifeless corpse and to lament the lost leader while gaping at said corpse forever. Hugo Chavez is the next despot in line for non-desposal. Being somewhat iconic in life, someone apparently figures displaying the icon rather than burying it six feet under will render it (not in the candle sense, please, although my guess is that would shed more light on more subjects than a carcass) somehow still tenacious.
Yes, Chavez will soon join the ranks of Mao, Lenin, Ho Chi Minh, Ferdinand Marcos, Eva Peron and the Kims … father and son, both Il in life, both dead-but-not-gone, Jong and Sung … on display, like Roy Roger’s horse. (Russia offered Stalin The Stiff as a side show until 1961 when he was finally buried as part of a move to “un-Stalinize” the country, figuring, I suppose, that out of sight is out of mind.)
I have had the dubious honor of filing past the perpetually present corpse of Mao, an experience fraught with emotion … but not the sort it was designed to inspire.
It was 1989, just a couple of weeks before the soon-to-be-deadly protests started in Beijing. I was in China with my nineteen-year-old daughter, out and about to see the sites. At that time, it was required visitors be guided, both physically and with the intent to lead them toward unreasonable conclusions. On our way to visit Tiananmnen Square, our chaperone explained our upcoming experience.
“You will now have the great pleasure to see the most famous exhibit in all the world,” she said in heavily accented not-quite-Chinglish. “Millions of people come every day to see what you are about to see.”
We waited for it …
“THE MOUSE MEMORIAL!”
At least that’s what Jenn and I heard.
It took a few minutes to realize that the queue of Chinese peasants stretching for some distance … four abreast, equal distance apart, eerily silent … were having their places pushed back some so we tourists from the decadent West could officially cut in front to enter Mao’s Memorial.
Well … sorry propaganda machine of the government of the People’s Republic, but there was no way in hell we Californian’s had not already constructed a working version vision of Mickey Maos.
We had previously visited the Beijing Zoo (Remind me to write a post about that nightmare someday.), so weren’t expecting much in the way of quality, but were a bit surprised at the lavishness on the inside of the square, squat building. It was posh in the way that flash-over-substance always is and filled with enormous bouquets of white chrysanthemums in garish vases. The military was well represented with dozens of uniformed men holding automatic weapons and standing at attention. (My daughter got off the line of the day when she noticed the Red Army wears white socks.)
Reserving pride of place amongst a bazillion flowers sat a glass-domed casket inside of which lay the perpetually rigid corpse of Mao Zedong.
He wasn’t looking so good.
Being that we entered the place with certain images already in mind, could we help it if the thoughts and whispers we shared had to do with what the Disney people could have done with him? He’d be sitting up and waving at the crowd, perhaps even pacing the floor like Lincoln on Main Street instead of simply assuming the position of the waxy, fake-looking lump of whatever he might actually be after all the years … not that he was a particularly attractive man when he could still walk under his own power, but obvious inches of pancake re-dos hadn’t helped. (Here’s an explanation … sort of … on how he was made up.)
Laughing was definitely out with all those guns and properly inculcated citizens of the PRC around and stifling our giggles took a LOT of self control, but we certainly had no problem going along with the no-photos-no-videos rules. Since we’d passed on the offer to buy flowers to add to the heaps, we meandered by with our hands over our mouths and swallowed our chuckles until we made it to the other side.
And now Chavez is in the perfect position for the same treatment … if trocars and formaldehyde can be considered treatment … and legions of the faithful, the morbid and the amused will be filing by as he continues to be dead.
Personally, I hope someday to rest in peace, not in public … it’s just so TACKY.