Totally RIP-ed

The strange story of Lenin's embalmers and a collection of cheeky epitaphs suggest that the Reaper may not be so grim after all.

Published July 2, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

The dead are the ultimate straight men in a joke of cosmic proportions. Their tombstones are carved with deprecatory doggerel and their elegies and eulogies often rewrite their lives into mush and melodrama. As for their earthly remains, well, there's no overestimating the slapstick possibilities of a stiffened corpse.

For a good time, call on the local cemetery. A 19th century example:

Here lies Jane Smith, wife of Thomas Smith, Marble-cutter.

Monuments of the same style, $350

For an epitaph, Thomas Smith's words are sensible enough: Jane's death gave him an irresistible opportunity, her tombstone providing a natural billboard for a man accustomed to advertising the facts of death. Except that Smith seems to have underestimated his art, misunderstood that his workmanship would outlast his earthly needs. Pity the man. The bargain he cut when he carved his wife's gravestone -- he didn't have to pay the $350, after all -- keeps his name, and his greed for work, forever above ground, while his wife rests soundly below.

We'll never know who else Thomas Smith cut marble for, but judging from the evidence in Jill Werman Harris' "Remembrances and Celebrations" -- 336 pages of eulogies, elegies, letters of condolence and epitaphs -- monuments in his style are about as common as coffin nails. We forget, obsessed as we are with extending our lives, that death lasts much longer, and as private as mourning may be, tombstones are our most public and enduring record. We forget, only to be reminded:

Here lies the body of Susan Lowder

Who burst while drinking a Sedlitz Powder,

Called from this world to her heavenly rest.

She should have waited till it effervesced.

Lowder's life is lost to us now. What preserves her memory is her absurd end. Dead people deride immortality from beyond the grave -- turn it ludicrous. The punch line isn't that Susan Lowder burst, but rather that, if she had waited for that Sedlitz Powder to effervesce, she wouldn't survive today in the pages of Harris' book.

Somewhat less daffy is the testimonial on the tombstone of one Mary Page: "In 67 months she was tap'dd 66 times. Had taken away 240 gallons of water, without ever repining at her case or ever fearing the operation." What gets us isn't the pain Mary endured, but rather the boastful -- to whom? by whom? -- recounting of her struggle. When we laugh at Mary Page's fate, it's the laugh of every loss, any loss, we've ever endured. Mourning itself is a bit ridiculous. The dead, after all, are oblivious to funeral arrangements. They ignore coffins and flowers and black lace. They smile on worldly tragedy. The dead are paragons of sobriety, reflecting our own absurdity back at us. They make a mockery of the ambitions of people like Jill Werman Harris, who attempt, through starched prose and somber posturing, to anthologize their way into "the vast literature of mourning."

Rather, we should follow Sir Rupert Hart-Davis' example. Given T.S. Eliot -- a man not noted for his comedic aspirations -- to eulogize, he told mourners an anecdote: "One day when [Eliot] was being driven somewhere, he and the chauffeur passed the time by discussing the merits of their respective dogs. Eventually the chauffeur thought that perhaps he had overpraised his own dog, and said, 'But, sir, he isn't really what you'd call a consequential dog.'" Of course Eliot was a consequential man, and his chauffeur knew it. But speak of things too consequentially, and they do get ridiculous. How do you lend weight to ashes without appearing to apply them, like war paint, to your own reputation? By laughing the whole business off -- acknowledging that even the most consequential dog has its final day.

If only Josef Stalin had possessed Sir Rupert's mirth, he might have avoided communism's greatest running joke: the afterlife of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin. No writer, from Bulgakov to Sologub, has authored a satire of the Soviet system as ridiculous or as sublime as the true story of the first dictator's corpse, and Ilya Zbarsky's memoir, "Lenin's Embalmers," does it remarkable, often hysterical, justice. Dead people don't lie, and the truth they tell isn't always what their mourners would like to believe.

Stalin dreamed of seeing Lenin preserved even before he was gone. For centuries, the Russian Orthodox Church had built its legitimacy on the bones of dead saints, revering their earthly remains. If the Soviet state was to secure the faith of its citizens -- if it was to become a new opiate for the masses -- it needed relics of its own to flaunt. And so, in typical Soviet fashion, a Committee for the Immortalization of Lenin's Memory was formed within days of the dictator's death, presided over by Felix Dzerzhinsky, chief of the secret police. While a Soviet research institute studied Lenin's brain -- their orders were to determine that he was a genius -- the politicians debated whether to refrigerate his body or to embalm it. All the scientists consulted argued that refrigeration wouldn't stop the decaying action of enzymes. Tests conducted on spare corpses confirmed their claims. Alas, it was a high-ranking Bolshevik who had proposed putting Lenin on ice -- like any good Marxist, he was uninterested in irrefutable evidence -- so their advice was ignored. The committee voted to refrigerate Lenin. Unsurprisingly, the body began to rot. The left hand turned greenish-gray. The ears crumpled. Unsurprisingly again, the committee reversed its vote. The scientists were called back to Moscow and were offered whatever they wanted to save the dead father of communism.

What they wanted was a bath in which to soak the deteriorating corpse. Metal, they recognized, might react with the embalming fluid, so Lenin's embalmers opted for rubber. Of course, this being Russia, there wasn't a rubber bath to be had, but there was a rubber factory in Moscow's outskirts. Dzerzhinsky went to place the order himself. Zbarsky relates the tale in his Soviet deadpan: "He was disappointed -- to say the least -- to find that as it was a Saturday no one was working. He therefore scoured the whole neighbourhood until he found the manager, and then made him sound the factory alarm. This brought the workers who lived nearby running, thinking there was a fire. They were taken aback to find themselves being ordered to make a rubber bath by the head of the secret police, but the order was at once carried out."

Zbarsky's father was one of the scientists charged with preserving Lenin's corpse, and Zbarsky chose to follow him to the mausoleum largely because for decades it remained the most generously-funded research institution in the Soviet Union, a place of ever-growing bureaucracy where alcohol purchased for the purpose of embalming was imbibed late at night and, more scandalously, scientists on staff could get away with conducting their own research -- pure science frowned upon by true Bolsheviks -- when they weren't tending to the corporeal needs of their savior. Technically speaking, "Lenin's Embalmers" is Zbarsky's autobiography, but in the end it has as little to do with his legacy as Susan Lowder's tombstone has to do with Sedlitz Powder. Zbarsky is, like his father and even Stalin himself, a pawn in the tale of Lenin's afterlife, one more sap enlisted to reduce the communist system to absurdity on behalf of its endlessly mischievous founder. As the years passed and terror became its own ideology, Lenin's flights grew more fanciful: At the end of World War II, the Soviet government ordered Zbarsky to wander the blackened streets of Berlin in a borrowed Red Army uniform, pillaging university classrooms for chemicals needed to replace the morticians' depleted supplies. By the 1990s, the mausoleum was supplementing its income by servicing murdered local gangsters.

Lenin's corpse undoubtedly served Stalin's ends in the public sphere -- for decades millions of Soviet citizens paid tribute to the system by visiting his final resting place -- but to those who served him, Lenin offered an unforgettable lesson in communism's hypocrisy. Lenin was a genius once his brain was removed; like the picture of Dorian Gray projected across an entire country, his body survived even as his philosophy deteriorated.

Vladimir Ilyich Lenin laughed last. Laughter is our end.

By Jonathon Keats

Jonathon Keats is an artist and writer. His collection of fables, "The Book of the Unknown: Tales of the Thirty-Six," was published this year.

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