Hugo Chavez was not a terribly dignified individual in life, given to wearing military uniforms enlivened by his personal embellishments, having grandiose plans for alliances with such world powers as Iran and Cuba, denouncing President George W. Bush as the devil at the United Nations and giving bellicose harangues predicting imminent U.S. invasion, as if we haven't had enough problems wrestling with the problems of dysfunctional Third World nations.
In death, however, the Venezuelan dictator seems to have escaped one final indignity. The funerary plans called for Russian experts to embalm Chavez's body so it could be put on perpetual display inside a glass case at a military museum not far from the presidential palace. However, the experts said that Venezuela waited too long -- he died March 5 -- for them to do a proper job.
Originally, said the acting head of state, Vice President Nicolas Maduro, the government "decided to prepare the body of our Commandante President, to embalm it so that it remains open for all time for the people. Just like Ho Chi Minh. ... Just like Mao Zedong."
By most standards, Chavez's corpse escaped a macabre fate. For all the talk about advances in the embalmer's art, Chavez would have effectively been stuffed, mounted and put on display. He would have been a tourist attraction.
The ancient Egyptians went to elaborate lengths to preserve their dead, but then the mummified corpses were hidden; it remained for our more enlightened age to put them on display. The medieval church tended to parcel out pieces of its saints, encased in elaborate reliquaries, to favored places of pilgrimage.
But it took the supposedly hardheaded realists of communism -- socialists immune to superstition -- to carry the preservation of deceased leaders to truly unnerving levels.
The mother church, so to speak, of dead Marxists is Lenin's Tomb in Moscow's Red Square. Lenin has been on display since a few days after his death in January 1924, and if you believe the rumors, his body has been rebuilt so many times since then that what's under that glass lid is more Madame Tussauds than Vladimir Lenin. His tomb mate for eight years was his murderous successor, Josef Stalin, who was exhumed and buried next to the Kremlin Wall.
Ho Chi Minh has been under glass in Vietnam since 1975, and Mao Zedong's embalmed body has been on display in Beijing since 1977. The Chinese wait in long lines, maybe to pay their respects, maybe to reassure themselves that he's still dead.
The body of North Korea's founding dictator, Kim Il Sung, has been available for viewing since 1975 in a former presidential palace, and a few floors below is the preserved body of his son and successor, Kim Jong Il.
Eva "Evita" Peron, the wife of Argentina's dictator, Juan Peron, died in 1952 and was embalmed, by having all her bodily fluids replaced by wax, in preparation for going on display. But Peron was driven into exile in 1955. Eventually, Eva was shipped to Europe to join her husband and his third wife, Isabel. Juan Peron returned to Argentina, was re-elected president in 1973, but died the next year, to be succeeded by Isabel. She brought the well-preserved Eva back and gave her a decent burial -- not, however, with her one-time husband.
Chavez supporters will probably erect an elaborate tomb to the founder of the incoherent national philosophy of "Bolivarism." They will ignore, if they even remember, his final wish to be buried in his hometown of Sabaneta, but even so, he narrowly escaped the fate of being a tourist spectacle.
(Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service, http://www.scrippsnews.com)