NORTH Korea's decision to embalm ''dear'' departed dictator Kim Jong-il's body and put it on permanent public display revives a practice as old as the pharaohs, which can still serve nefarious political ends.
The rich are not for embalming - they tend to live in the present, enjoying their wealth. Yet the bodies of some of the world's most maniacal killers - usually the ones driven by demented ideologies - refuse death.
It's largely communist leaders, whose avowed aim was the empowerment of the lowly, whose embalmed remains have been installed in grand monuments. In this, they followed the practice of some popes. Out with the opiate of religion, in with the cult of the political cadaver.
Lenin, Stalin, Mao Zedong, Ho Chi Minh and Kim Il-sung all got the formaldehyde treatment and the starving citizenry were duly herded before them in a form of compulsory worship. Affluent foreign tourists keen to see what a dead person looks like provide a revenue stream that maintains these gloomy icons.
To the embalmer, death is not a nemesis but a powerful rival for control over the body. Chemistry is the equaliser, allowing the embalmer to preserve the corpse long after death has stolen the soul.
In cultures like ancient Egypt's, the practice was entwined with society's religious beliefs about the afterlife. The king was mummified and equipped with provisions for what was expected to be a long journey through the netherworld. And when crusader knights were slain, their bodies were preserved for the long journey home to a good Christian burial.
During the American Civil War, thanks to the sheer volume of carnage and involvement of soldiers from far-flung states, embalming was practised for the first time on an industrial scale. Less tragically, in Australia, we put the separate science of taxidermy to work preserving our greatest racehorse, Phar Lap, who died in the 1930s but still stands proud and tall in a glass display case in a Melbourne museum.
Top-heavy dictatorial regimes are the ones most in need of the embalmer's trade, mainly because their power is based on force and fear. The preserved cadaver symbolises an enduring political order. It stands - or more precisely, lies - as a warning to anyone who might challenge a power that defies even death.
China may no longer chant from Mao's ''little red book'' but his Communist Party still rules and the departed leader's body is still on show. The cult of personality, essential to maintaining Mao's power in his lifetime, has been bequeathed to his successors, who use it to legitimise the order that provides them with privileges.
Even in Moscow, where communism is dead and buried, Lenin's corpse still lies in state, glowing under a gloomy, greenish light, reminding Russians of their country's tumultuous history and the sacrifices and suffering their forebears endured.
However, for many, the embalming of the worst demagogues keeps the pain alive and represents an insult to their many victims. In 1961, Stalin's corpse was quietly removed from the Red Square mausoleum, where he lay alongside Lenin, and was interred near the Kremlin's wall.
Right-wing dictators are rarely embalmed and displayed, former Philippines president Ferdinand Marcos being a rare exception. But had the Third Reich survived, the right's greatest monster, Hitler, probably would have been embalmed upon his death for the same reasons that motivated the communists.
Today, fortunately, absolute despotism is rarer and has a relatively short shelf life. As democracy replaces tyranny, so embalming has entered the services of the common citizenry. These days, it's more about presentation than preservation. The vogue for open-casket funerals requires a final, formaldehyde makeover. In death, as in life, we want to look our best and nobody wants foul odours marring a beautiful funeral, as they did when the botched embalming of Pope Pius XII caused the Swiss Guards stationed around the body to faint.
Hopefully, future generations will regard the display of dead politicians as a quaint reminder of how unevolved human beings can be. Either that or they'll analyse the preserved remains to isolate and eliminate the gene that produces political psychopaths.
Christopher Kremmer is the author of five books and a former Herald foreign correspondent. See christopherkremmer.com.
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