Confession No. 1: There are times when I am reading a story in a major newspaper and, after two or three paragraphs, I am seized with this premonition that the story is going to be “haunted,” that there is a religious “ghost” linked to this topic and that journalists are not going to see it.
Confession No. 2: This is especially true when I am reading a news source that, in the past, has proven to be particularly tone deaf when it comes to hearing the religious notes in big stories (to paraphrase, once again, Bill Moyers). There are journalists out there that just don’t get it. Take, for example, the Style section of The Washington Post, journalistic territory in which the role of faith in public life is often ignored or, worse, mocked. In other words, it is easy to prejudge things when you are dealing with frequent offenders.
Confession No. 3: Sometimes I am wrong.
To tell you the truth, I am almost always very happy to be proven wrong — especially when the story in about a subject that is of special interest to me. It’s nice to be reading a story thinking, “They’re not gonna get it,” “They’re not going to see the obvious” and then, well, you hit a passage that addresses the very issue that you expected to be ignored.
Take, for example, that feature story the other day on the Style section of Post that ran under this grabber headline: “Stiff challenge: How Kim Jong Il and other leaders join the ranks of the preserved.” Here’s the top of the story:
Last week, North Korean officials announced that the body of recently deceased leader Kim Jong Il would be permanently enshrined at Kumsusan Memorial Palace in the capital of Pyongyang. This act will give new meaning to the term “eternal leader.”
There is, however, historical precedent for this — an exclusive club of former dictators and world leaders whose bodies go on even as their lives don’t. Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh has been on display for more than 30 years, as has Mao Zedong, the Communist Party leader of China, whose embalmers reportedly learned their preservation techniques from the Vietnamese, who had learned them from the Russians.
Yes, the Russians — which means the spiffy, shining body of the secular Soviet saint named Vladimir Lenin, who has been lying in state since his death in 1924. This is the hero on display who set the standard in the modern era, the model for other Communist leaders to come. It’s hard to ignore Lenin.
“I’ve seen Lenin,” says Mary Roach, author of the modern death encyclopedia “Stiff.” “You have about 30 seconds to pretend to be paying your respects, when really you’re thinking, ‘How did they do that?’ You cannot embalm someone and have them look so good. There had to be some kind of Lenin Pledge Wax going on there.”
Some kind of something — though for decades nobody knew what it was. In 1999, the caretakers of the body published a book. “Lenin’s Embalmers” revealed the regimen, which included applications of mild bleach, a steady temperature of 61 degrees and prolonged soaks in glycerol and potassium acetate.
Now, as I read the Lenin passages I kept thinking to myself: Do they know WHY it was so important, in the context of Russian culture and tradition, for Lenin’s body to appear to be incorrupt? Are readers going to find out what this powerful visual symbolism is all about?
No way, I thought. No way they are going to bring up the subject of religious relics and the mysterious phenomenon in which the bodies of some saints do not become corrupted.
I am happy to report that I was wrong. Toward the end readers are told:
… Egyptians were practicing mummification rituals millennia ago, and in the Christian church, there’s a long history of the display of bodies and body parts and a fascination with “uncorrupted” saints, whose bodies appear to exist in good condition without scientific assistance. Saint Polycarp is the first on record; after he was burned and stabbed to death by the Romans, his followers collected the remains, which, one remarked, were not at all charred but rather “like a loaf in the oven.” …
For centuries, proximity to relics such as these made common people feel closer to the divine.
It is these early religious traditions that may have prepared the way for the preservation of 20th-century political figures. Communism “may have chased out the church itself in Russia,” says Peter Manseau, a Washington College religion professor and author of “Rag and Bone: A Journey Among the World’s Holy Dead.” “But the practices remained. In some ways, the practices were more important than the beliefs.”
Trust me, I am well aware that there is much more that can be said on this subject. I am also aware that some believers in the ancient churches — East and West — may think that these passages are not very, shall we say, reverent. It’s hard not to note the wording on that reference to the saints, the part about these bodies appearing to “exist in good condition without scientific assistance.” Those of us who have visited the Pechersk Lavra, the famous monastery caves in Kiev, would certainly choose a stronger wording to describe that.
But that is not the point. In this case, either the journalists working on this story spotted the ghost or one of their sources helped them to do so. While some readers might think that the story is flawed a bit, that’s not the issue. The religious element was included. Crucial information — especially the Lenin material — was included.
So bravo. Four stars out of five. I happily conclude my confessions for this day.