Chavez to Be Embalmed: How Does That Work?

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Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chavez will apparently get the Lenin treatment in death, an embalming job designed to keep him looking alive to his followers for decades. But how could a human body be preserved without turning into a pile of melted tissue?

Even though there are still closely-guarded secrets behind the science of embalming Lenin and other leaders (Ho Chi Minh, Mao Tse-Tung and Eva Peron are also on the list), professionals here in the United States have a few recommendations for the Venezuelans tasked with the job.

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First, get to work quickly.

Upon death, the human body starts decomposing immediately. Bacteria in the gut and respiratory tract start to work on surrounding tissues. Enzymes in the body begin to self-destruct. The way to stop it is with formaldehyde, a preservative used for the past century, which inhibits the enzyme decomposition as well as killing bacteria, according to Vernie Fountain, head of the Fountain National Academy of Professional Embalming Skills in Springfield, Mo.

“You pump the chemical in, and as the formaldehyde hits the cells of the body, it firms up the protein of the cell, or fixates it,” Fountain said. “That’s what makes them stiff.”

Fountain said that most embalmers mix formaldehyde with water to make a solution that works for each body. With a body that will have to be on display for years, it’s likely to require a top-shelf, super-strong solution. The actual chemicals used to keep Lenin looking fresh remain a tightly held secret.

“If I were doing Hugo Chavez, I would strengthen the solution and use more preservative product,” Fountain said.

Second, get a good moisturizer.

Formaldehyde preserves, but it also dries out the body. Over time, fingertips shrivel, eyelids sag and lips shrink. Vaseline or other moisturizers can preserve the look of skin, according to Melissa Johnson Williams, executive director of the American Society of Embalmers. She also suggests lanolin-based fluids to keep fingers looking alive.

Third, keep cool.

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Heat also decomposes a body. That may not be a big issue in Moscow, where Lenin rested in public from his death in 1924 until 1991, but in Caracas, Venezuela, the average daily high ranges from 79 to 83 degrees Farenheit every month. The body has to be kept at the temperature of a standard kitchen refrigerator, somewhere in the mid-40s, Johnson said. It may be easier to keep the body cool under a glass case than cooling the entire display room.

“I’m hoping they’ve already done the embalming, because now they are several days after his death and in trying to re-embalm the remains can be more difficult,” Johnson said.

Johnson said Chavez's keepers will have to keep close watch on him for signs of deterioration. They will also have to monitor the body, and regularly change both embalming fluid and his clothing.

Lastly, if Venezuelans really want to keep Hugo Chavez around forever, there’s only one solution that works, according to Fountain.

“The best form of preservation is mummification,” he said.

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