In the passenger seat of a car parked outside a home in Costa Mesa, California police recently found a mummy.
The body belonged to a female special education teacher, down on her luck. A local real estate agent had encountered the teacher in a park and upon hearing that she had nowhere to live, offered the woman her car to sleep in. The teacher indeed began sleeping in the car, only at some point she died. The frightened real estate agent did not tell authorities about the body. Instead, she covered it up with a blanket and some clothes and placed a box of baking soda in her car to mask the smell. When police found the body the teacher had been dead for ten months and was completely mummified. She weighed just 30 pounds, “little more than skin and bones,” according to one news article.
In a suburban California town like Costa Mesa, a preserved corpse is clearly an unwanted addition to the landscape, but this isn’t always the case. Perhaps the most famous modern mummy in the world is that of the Russian revolutionary, Vladimir Lenin, preserved in the Lenin Mausoleum in Red Square, in the center of Moscow. Lenin survived several assassination attempts, including one that lodged a bullet in his neck. He finally died of a massive stroke on January 22, 1924. Within weeks the government had received more than 10,000 telegrams, from all over Russia, asking that his body somehow be preserved for future generations. A prominent pathologist embalmed Lenin’s body with a mixture of glycerine and potassium acetate while a renowned architect was given a mere three days to design and build a tomb to accommodate all those who wanted to say goodbye to Lenin. The tomb was built from wood and placed in Red Square, near the Kremlin Wall. More than 100,000 people visited it over the next six weeks.
In 1924, the tomb was upgraded, and again in 1929, when a stone mausoleum was constructed. In October of 1941, with Moscow in danger of falling to invading Nazi troops, Lenin’s body was evacuated to Tyumen, in Siberia. After the war, the body was returned and the tomb reopened. The embalmed body of the ruthless dictator Joseph Stalin shared a spot beside Lenin from the time of his death in 1953 through October of 1961, when Stalin’s body was removed as part of de-Stalinization and buried outside the walls of the Kremlin. In 1973, Lenin’s mausoleum was rebuilt once again.
When the Soviet Union fell in 1991 the government discontinued financial support for the upkeep of Lenin’s body. Since then private donations have supported a team of embalmers who follow a strict protocol to keep the body in a presentable state. The sarcophagus must be kept at a constant temperature of 61̊ F and a humidity of 80 to 90 percent. Every 18 months the corpse is removed for a special chemical bath whose ingredients were kept secret until after the fall of the Soviet Union, the chemicals are now known to be potassium acetate, alcohol, glycerol, distilled water and quinine. One major problem over the years has been the dark spots that have formed on Lenin’s skin, especially his face and hands. The embalmers treat wrinkles and discoloration with acetic acid diluted with water and use hydrogen peroxide to restore coloring. Damp spots are removed with disinfectants like quinine or carbolic acid. But the presence of Lenin’s body in Red Square has become increasingly problematic in the past two decades, opinion polls show that two-thirds of Russians believe his body should be removed from the mausoleum and buried. There is also a more vocal contingent now calling for his burial.
Last January, some 50 people dressed as mummies gathered in Moscow’s Red Square to call for Lenin’s body to be buried in a “humble grave” at the Volkovskoye Cemetery, in St. Petersburg. The group identifies themselves as Orthodox monarchists. They rallied beside the large crowd that had gathered to celebrate the 85th anniversary of Lenin’s death, but remained peaceful. “There will be no crowd standing and chanting slogans,” one protestor said. “The mummies will be quiet, just the way mummies should be.” Nevertheless, about two dozen mummies were detained by the police.