Lifting the Lid: Lenin’s Tomb and American Presidential Funeral Customs

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By Louis L. Picone, Author

In each of the presidential debates between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, the topic of Russia has been raised. The candidates have bickered over Hillary’s role in the Russian reset policy; over Trump’s lavish praise for Russian president Vladimir Putin, hacking, and a return to a covert cold war; and, worst of all, the unsettling prospects of an overt “hot” war. The relationship between Russia and America especially resonates with me during this election cycle, because in June 2016 I was invited to speak at the international conference “U.S. Presidents and Russian Rulers” at the Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow.

Presidential historians Louis Picone and David Kennedy at the international conference “U.S. Presidents and Russian Rulers” at the Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow in June 2016.

Despite the struggles between our nations, I found the Russian people warm and friendly and our host extraordinarily generous and hospitable. Every evening we saw many beautiful sites in Moscow, and after the conference, we toured the majestic city of St. Petersburg. I was mesmerized at the Mikhailovsky ballet, awed by the opulent palaces, toured the Hermitage, stood in silence at the somber Monument to the Heroic Defenders of Leningrad, and forged friendships with renowned presidential historians over many indulgent and excessive meals. However, since I have a particular interest in the presidential grave sites, there was another attraction I wanted to see that the others dismissed––Vladimir Lenin’s tomb in Red Square (for those that may not be aware, the remains of founder of the Soviet Union Vladimir Lenin have been on display beneath plate glass since shortly after his death in 1924) The doors opened at 10:00 a.m., but a half-hour before it opened the line of eager tourists already stretched several hundred feet long. I joined the throng and shortly thereafter, a group of students got in line behind me.

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Eventually, I made my way to inside and descended several flights of stairs into the dark, where I laid my eyes upon the eerily waxen remains of the “Father of the Revolution.” As the group of chatty students were taking their time, for several moments I was alone in the subterranean chamber, except for the guards that were indifferent to my presence. Fixated on Lenin’s nintey-two years-dead, bald, and goateed embalmed head, my mind began to wander as I pondered the burial customs of our own presidents.

The body of Lenin preserved for over 92 years

Source: “In the Flesh: Russian Scientists Work to Preserve Lenin’s Corpse.” Moscow Times, May 5, 2016.

Not surprisingly, my initial thought was that Americans do not have any exposed presidential remains on display. But while we have no deceased presidents beneath plate glass for the viewing public, while researching and writing my latest book The President Is Dead! The Extraordinary Stories of the Presidential Deaths, Final Days, Burials, and BeyondI discovered that many of their remains have been on public display during their funeral ceremonies. The custom started with George Washington, who, on his deathbed, requested that he not be placed in the tomb for at least three days. While this allowed time for a funeral ceremony on the grounds of Mount Vernon, this was not Washington’s intent. In fact, Washington had specifically directed in his will that his “corpse may be interred in a private manner, without parade, or funeral oration.” He dictated the delay because he was petrified at the prospect of being buried alive! On the day of his funeral, held four days after his death, a mourner who viewed the first president’s remains at Mount Vernon pronounced, “The countenance, still composed and serene, seemed to express the dignity of the spirit which lately dwelt in that that lifeless form.”[1]

This visceral desire to see our presidents one final time before sealing them in a coffin for all eternity did not stop with Washington. Mourners also gazed upon the lifeless faces of James Monroe, William Henry Harrison, Andrew Jackson, Zachary Taylor, John Tyler, and Martin Van Buren–– and these were all before the advent of embalming!

However, no yearning for the public to view a dead president, before or since, could compare to that of Abraham Lincoln. After his cold-blooded assassination, a heart-broken nation ached to see him one last time. His body was placed on display for hundreds of thousands to view in cities across the country, and for twenty days, he was main attraction in a maudlin traveling show. Prior to the lachrymose pageant, the body was prepared by a “master embalmer,” Henry P. Cattell, who also accompanied the funeral train on its 1,700-mile sojourn and dusted, chalked, and adjusted the corpse’s features when necessary.

[1] The Monthly Visitor, and Entertaining Pocket Companion by A Society of Gentlemen. London: C. Whittlingham, 1800. 178-179.

The only photograph of Abraham Lincoln’s remains during his 20-day funeral

Source: Public domain

Open coffins were featured in many more presidential funerals, and almost all public descriptions were respectful and deferential. However, when James Garfield was placed on display following a ravaging eighty-day illness after being shot in which time he lost over one hundred pounds, the public could not contain their collective horror at the sight of their once robust president. The New York Times recoiled, “The president’s face was shockingly ghastly. The skin was drawn tightly over the projecting bones, except on the forehead where it was deeply corrugated. The lips were apart disclosing the set teeth. The hair and whiskers had whitened perceptibly.”[2]

[2] “The Nation’s Dead Chief,” New York Times, September 22, 1881.

The new president Chester Arthur pays his respects at the emaciated remains of James Garfield

Source: McCabe, James Dabney. Our Martyred President. Guelph, World Pub. Co, 1883. 40.

The practice continued through several more presidential funerals, but after the death of Calvin Coolidge in 1933, the public had unknowingly seen its last dead president. Twelve years later, Eleanor would forgo an open casket for her husband, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. This alarmed some, and one conspiracy theorist who called himself “Mr. X” decried, “Until Mrs. Roosevelt explains to the world why the casket . . . was not opened to the public, the death of her husband, Franklin D. Roosevelt will remain an unsolved mystery!”[3] Ironically, the same mysterious “Mr. X” also claimed a disbelieving Joseph Stalin had sent the Russian ambassador to the White House to see Roosvelt’s body and to get proof that he was really dead (the request to view the body was denied). A generation later, the embalmers that tended to John F. Kennedy’s remains worked under the assumption that his widow may choose an open coffin, but ultimately, she wisely decided against it. By all accounts, an open casket has not been considered for any subsequent presidential funerals.

Suddenly, the group of chatting, giggling students entered Lenin’s tomb behind me, awakening me from my presidential funeral daydream. I took a final glance at Lenin’s remains and hurried out the darkened crypt. During my trip to Russia, I discovered some significant differences between our countries; however, as always when I travel, I was struck much more by how our cultures and customs also have many similarities––but Lenin’s tomb, was definitely not one of them!

[3] Mr. X. The Roosevelt Death: A Super Mystery. G.L.K. Smith: 1947. 3.

The President is Dead!
By Louis L. Picone
ISNB: 9781510703766

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