Tag Archives: celebrity dead

Dead People on Display

Lenin`s EmbalmerLenin`s Embalmer by Ilya Zbarsky

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I came at this book not from the perspective of a history aficionado but, as you might guess, as someone fascinated by the concept of keeping one’s leaders under glass. Nonsecular saints, you might say. Ilya Zbarsky is the person to go to for the gory details, since he was the son of the man who first embalmed Lenin, and in turn, headed up the embalming lab. As such, it’s interesting that Zbarsky chose to end this little book with the statement: “I cannot help believing that embalming is a barbaric and anachronistic practice, alien to the cultures of Western societies.” Speaking as a citizen, he feels the time has come to bury Lenin. Guess I should see about getting some plane tickets and making my pilgrimage now.

In 1923, as Vladimir Lenin was dying of a series of strokes perhaps brought on by syphilis, Joseph Stalin suggested the Soviet Union embalm Lenin long enough “for us to grow used to the idea of his being no longer among us.” Lenin’s widow begged the country, in the pages of Pravda, to remember her husband by building kindergartens and hospitals, but Stalin saw a way to use the population’s religious sentiment to cement his own power.

One of the Bolshevik leaders wanted to refrigerate Lenin and approached Boris Zbarsky, a biochemist, to strengthen his case. Zbarsky examined the decaying body and knew that freezing would not reverse the damage. After he’d dared to have an opinion on the matter, he was put in charge of restoring the corpse and preparing it for public viewing. The descriptions of Lenin’s decomposition are particularly tasty. These were recorded in watercolors by Alexander Pasternak, but unfortunately, the paintings aren’t reproduced here.

After his career in nuclear composition was cut short for smacking too much of genetics, Ilya Zbarsky joined the embalming lab. While he was sent to Mongolia to embalm the dictator Choybalsan, his father Boris was arrested for being “cosmopolitan” – read Jewish – after some 30 years of tweaking Lenin’s corpse. The elder Zbarsky’s health was ruined by his imprisonment and his son assumed his position.

Stalin joined Lenin on view in the mausoleum on Red Square for eight years, before he was buried under the Kremlin with other dignitaries. After his demotion, Muscovites adopted the maxim, “Don’t sleep in a mausoleum that doesn’t belong to you.” Other leaders who were embalmed by the Russian team include Ho Chi Mihn, Kim Il Sung, and the leaders of Angola, Guyana, and the Czech Communist Party. Mao Tse-Tung was embalmed by the Chinese without Soviet technology.

These days, after the fall of the Soviet Union decimated their budget, the embalming team works commercially, providing museum-quality preservation for gangsters.

Zbarsky is the last survivor of the team who preserved Lenin from 1934 to 1952. His memoir is fascinating, even occasionally frightening, reading.

This review originally appeared in Morbid Curiosity #8. Lenin’s body was in the news in January 2011 as Russians once again considered burying him at last. Here’s the link: http://www.csmonitor.com/World/Europe…

You can get your own copy for cheap on Amazon here.

View all my reviews on Goodreads.

Cemetery of the Week #110: Holy Cross Cemetery

Grotto angel at Holy Cross

Grotto angel at Holy Cross

Holy Cross Cemetery
5835 West Slauson Avenue
Culver City, California 90230
Telephone: (310) 836-5500
Founded: 1939
Size: 200 acres
Number of interments: more than 160,000
Open: Weekdays 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturdays 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Closed Sundays.

Near the Jewish cemetery called Hillside Memorial Park and Mortuary lies Catholic Holy Cross Cemetery. Holy Cross mimics the design of the Forest Lawn chain, with headstones replaced by small stone plaques set flush with the sod. At 200 acres, Holy Cross is the largest of the 11 Catholic cemeteries in Los Angeles.

Culver City, home of Holy Cross, lies west of downtown Los Angeles and just south of Century City. When the cemetery was founded in 1939, Culver City was considered the “heart of the film industry.” Because of that, many film industry veterans chose Holy Cross to be their final home. According to Laid to Rest in California, the cemetery staff is very helpful in pinpointing anyone you might like to visit on the cemetery maps.

View of the grotto at Holy Cross

View of the grotto at Holy Cross

Most celebrities surround the manmade grotto on the high ground in the southwest part of the cemetery. Once you enter the ornate main gate, turn left and drive up the hill. A grotto is a small cave, usually artificial, in a garden or park. In Europe, natural grottoes like the one at Lourdes are considered sacred sites, where Christian or even earlier miracles have occurred. In Los Angeles, they build their own grottoes and no one expects miracles.

This pile of rocks hosts several white marble statues: the Virgin with hands clasped in prayer, Joseph displaying the baby, and several kneeling angels who looked as if they’d been meant to adore at a crèche rather than gaze at the sod. Someone had placed flowers in front of one of the angels’ knees. We found Rita Hayworth’s monument in the grass on our way over to see her.

Rhoads_HC_TateSharon Tate’s grave also lies near the grotto. A polished granite slab with white lettering remembers “Our Loving Daughter & Beloved Wife of Roman,” 26-year-old actress Sharon Tate Polanski, and Paul Richard, “Their Baby.” According to Helter Skelter, Susan Atkins made a point of stabbing Sharon—eight months pregnant—in the belly, in order to kill the baby before it could be born. (Atkins was the first of the Manson Family killers to die in prison.)

Down the hill a little way, Bela Lugosi rests in the same row as Bing Crosby. Elsewhere in the cemetery are buried Ray Bolger and Jack Haley (respectively, the Scarecrow and the Tin Man from The Wizard of Oz), comedian John Candy, director John Ford, musical comedian Spike Jones (but not namesake Spike Jonez), Fred MacMurray, dancer Ann Miller, Rosalind Russell, Lawrence Welk, and many, many more.

Useful links:

Holy Cross Cemetery and Mortuary’s homepage

Seeing Stars’ tour of Holy Cross, complete with map of the grotto area

IMDB’s list of stars at rest at Holy Cross

News story about the cemetery

Photos of the interior of the mausoleum

GPS information on CemeteryRegistry.us

L.A. cemetery books reviewed on Cemetery Travel:

Forever L.A.: A Field Guide to Los Angeles Area Cemeteries and their Residents

Laid to Rest in California: A Guide to the Cemeteries and Grave Sites of the Rich and Famous

Permanent Californians: An Illustrated Guide to the Cemeteries of California

Other graveyards of the Hollywood stars on Cemetery Travel:

Cemetery of the Week #5: Hollywood Forever

Cemetery of the Week #14: the Original Forest Lawn

Cemetery of the Week #40: Valhalla Memorial Park Cemetery

Cemetery of the Week #45: Hillside Memorial Park

Cemetery of the Week #51: Angelus-Rosedale Cemetery

It’s Hard to be Famous After You’re Dead

Rest in Pieces: The Curious Fates of Famous CorpsesRest in Pieces: The Curious Fates of Famous Corpses by Bess Lovejoy

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Unlike the usual “how they died” encyclopedias, Rest in Pieces is an encyclopedia of “what happened to them after they died.” Lovejoy’s criteria for inclusion in the book: the people had to be famous and they couldn’t rest peacefully in an undisturbed grave for eternity.

That’s not to say this doesn’t include the stories you expect: Vladimir Lenin’s permanent snooze in his mausoleum in Red Square, Evita Peron’s postmortem kidnapping, the road trips of Einstein’s brain. In addition to those, Rest in Pieces probes the mystery of the Skull & Bones skull said to be Geronimo’s, the penis said to be Rasputin’s, and the organ found in Mary Shelley’s writing desk. It even explores more recent dispositions, like Hunter Thompson’s fireworks display and Osama bin Laden’s burial at sea.

Lovejoy’s tone leans toward the snarky side of respectful, which feels appropriate. The only other way to go would be sustained outrage: how could Dorothy Parker’s ashes have been kept in a filing cabinet? How could Americans lose Thomas Paine’s body? How could Galileo Galilei been buried in a closet?

A fascinating page-turner. I look forward to seeing what Lovejoy will investigate next.

You can have a copy of your very own, courtesy of Amazon: Rest in Pieces: The Curious Fates of Famous Corpses.

View all my reviews on Goodreads.