The guards at the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum dress in all white with touches of red on their sleeves and hats. They look good. If someone was to guard my dead body, I’d like for them to dress like the guards at the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum. You don’t want the person guarding your body to be wearing skinny jeans from Hot Topic or an Abercrombie and Fitch t-shirt. Guarding a body is serious business. One should look the part, and I’d rather have a stone-faced Asian man guarding me than someone who looks like Joe Jonas.
These guards are snappy dressers, and they’re also very strict rule enforcers. As soon as the four of us – Heather, Clara, Perkins and I – arrived at the Mausoleum, Heather was told she had to cover her knees. No exposed kneecaps around the body. Later, our cameras were taken and put into a bag for us to retrieve after seeing Uncle Ho. No pictures around the body (which is a shame, because I thought a nice shot of me smiling by a corpse would make a good profile pic). Inside the Mausoleum, Clara was instructed not to fold her arms on her chest and I was told to get my hands out of my pockets. Arms straight down around the body. The corpse does not like having to read your body language.
If all of it seemed ridiculous, that was fitting because we were about to see a preserved corpse in a glass case. President of Vietnam Ho Chi Minh died in 1969. He did a lot of amazing things while he was alive, including gaining his country independence and unifying it. He is, to the Vietnamese people, what Jesus is to Mel Gibson. In other words, they really like him a lot. Uncle Ho, as he’s called, wanted to be cremated and have his ashes spread across the fields of Vietnam. Burying his body, he said, would waste valuable farm land. Instead, it was decided after he died to preserve his body and put it on display. With the aid of Russia, the body was embalmed and it’s been a Mecca for both nationalism and tourism ever since. (Apparently preserving dead leaders is a big thing in communist countries – Lenin is preserved in Russia, Mao Zedong in China, and Kim Il Sung in North Korea. This leads one to wonder how difficult it will be to keep Fidel Castro’s beard looking good in 70 years.)
Being a dead body just ain’t what it used to be. I mean, there used to be a time when burial and cremation were the only choices (with, of course, a few fringe options such as mummification or cannibalism, but those never really caught on). In our modern world, though, there are so many other options a contemporary corpse has. Robert Ettinger – the father of cryonics, also known as corpse freezing – is currently in a vat of liquid nitrogen in Detroit, waiting to be reanimated. Baseball great Ted Williams is also frozen – his son had him decapitated and had his DNA striped before sticking the Splendid Splinter in his own vat of liquid nitrogen, in two pieces. Writer Hunter S. Thompson had his remains shot out of a cannon, and other people have had their ashes turned into riffle ammunition. Dead bodies have, recently, been turned into fireworks, power sources (think The Matrix), and pencils. There’s even a weird new thing called Plastination where a corpse is made into a life sized action figure that looks like Slim Goodbody.
Uncle Ho himself looked pretty good. He’s lying peacefully on his back. His skin is smooth and his hands are nicely folded across his waist. I hope I look that good when I’m 121 years old. The guards are also careful to make sure no one talks in the Mausoleum. You wouldn’t want to wake him. I walked by Uncle Ho robotically, hands at sides, knees covered, quiet. Like a constipated soldier. The line is kept moving swiftly, and I only had about a minute or so to look at him before I was shuffled out.
A dead body is not a person. This idea must be spreading. Plastination, preservation, ammunition, 4th of July displays – we’ve entered an era where we can have a little fun with the remains of our loved ones. There was no feeling of grandeur when walking past the body of Uncle Ho Chi Minh. Just a slight feeling of irritation at being told over and over what to do by a group of guards in white clothes, with white gloves, watching over the dead body like ghosts at a funeral.