Are we really burying Marcos’ ‘body’?

Stephen Pedroza
Filipino historian and anthropologist Dr Antonio Montalvan II weighs in on the burial of the late dictator in a forum in Xavier University – Ateneo de Cagayan

CAGAYAN DE ORO CITY, Philippines — Contrary to popular belief, there is no “eternally embalmed body” of former President Ferdinand Marcos Sr that lies in his family’s mausoleum in Batac, Ilocos Norte.

Filipino historian and anthropologist Dr Antonio Montalvan II made this clarification during a recent forum at Xavier University – Ateneo de Cagayan dubbed “To B or Not To B,” referring to whether Marcos deserves a hero’s burial at the Libingan ng mga Bayani.

In an en banc decision on August 23, the Supreme Court issued a status quo ante order to all parties involved in the Marcos burial case, prohibiting them from burying him at the Libingan ng mga Bayani for the next 20 days.

Beyond the public display

Montalvan examined the burial controversy through the lenses of necropolitics, citing the tradition of long-term embalming of the late leaders of socialist and dictatorial regimes in different parts of the world. 

Russia had first perfected the craft of long-term embalming having preserved communist revolutionary and political theorist Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov or Lenin as the successful example of the process.

“In the Modern Age, we begin with Lenin. Long-term embalming was perfected by Soviet Russia. Lenin was the leader of the Bolsheviks Revolution in October 1917. When he died in 1924, the Soviet government wanted to preserve his body in his mausoleum in Kremlin,” Montalvan said.

“The temperature inside Lenin’s mausoleum has to be controlled. The embalmers have to apply glycerol, potassium acetate, bleaching reagents, and wax from time to time.”

One major problem that the morticians of Lenin faced was the discoloration of his skin, especially on the face and hands. They managed to solve this using a variety of reagents and acetic acid solution in between baths.

Montalvan enumerated other prominent leaders of communist countries who died after Lenin, and who were embalmed using the Soviet technique. Their bodies were put on public display inside mausoleums that became tourist attractions over time.

“When Ho Chi Minh of Vietnam died in 1969, the government took the embalmers of Lenin. It has somehow bolstered the tradition perfected by Russia,” he said.

Streams of people queue every day just to take a glimpse of Ho’s body in a granite mausoleum in Hanoi modeled after Lenin’s tomb in Moscow. 

After the death of communist revolutionary and founding father of the People’s Republic of China, Chairman Mao Zedong in 1976, the Communist Party of China wanted to preserve his remains, but there was a problem.

“Beijing then was not in friendly terms with its Soviet neighbor, so China turned to Vietnam. It was Vietnam that taught them the long-term embalming process, which the Vietnamese learned from the Soviets,” Montalvan said.

Local and foreign tourists flock to the Chairman Mao Memorial Hall, more commonly known as the Mausoleum of Mao Zedong, a colossal edifice in Tiananmen Square. Mao’s body, draped in the red flag of the People’s Republic of China,  is laid in a glass coffin.

“Mao’s crystal coffin is beautiful. It was designed to withstand an 8.0-magnitude earthquake…It has humidity controls also,” said Montalvan.

In the same manner, the late North Korean leader Kim Jong-il’s body was also embalmed for permanent display, according to Montalvan.

‘Leaders of repressive regimes’

“What do you think is the common thread that you see in this problem about long-term embalming?” asked Montalvan during the forum.

All of them are leaders of repressive regimes, he said.

“Their tenures were marked with the curtailment of freedom and human rights. Long-term embalming is not just about idolizing, there is a deeper, underlying reason behind it,” Montalvan said.

There is a narrative behind preserving the bodies of leaders.

In the case of Marcos, keeping his corpse intact is “a way of preserving his regime and legacy,” the historian said, describing it as the “Imeldific script” of Marcos’s narrative.  

“Imelda was not just preserving the body of Marcos, she has a script…She wants to present Marcos as still larger than life,” Montalvan said.

In 1993, then President Fidel Ramos allowed the repatriation of Marcos’ body. It was flown from a refrigerated crypt in Hawaii, where he succumbed to lupus erythematosus in 1989 while in exile.

The historian had the opportunity to visit the Marcos mausoleum twice.

During his second visit to the mausoleum, a close Marcos family friend whom Montalvan did not name, revealed a secret to their group.

“He said, ‘That’s not the body anymore. That’s just a wax replica.’ The real body has already been buried. Where? Underneath the glass coffin.”

Montalvan said that “Marcos still lies here. However, if the controversial former Philippine president will be given a hero’s burial at the Libingan ng mga Bayani, my question is, ‘What do we bury’?” —Rappler.com

Stephen Pedroza, Rappler’s Lead Mover in Cagayan de Oro City, is a journalism graduate from Xavier University – Ateneo de Cagayan. He attended a course on new media in journalism at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana.