The Enid News and Eagle, Enid, OK

National and world

March 9, 2013

Preservation of Venezuelan leader's body not an easy task

No one lives forever — nor do they last forever. At least not without a lot of tuneups.

As much as it may seem like the bodies of famous world leaders such as Vladimir Ilyich Lenin and Mao Zedong have been preserved for all eternity, their enduring physical presence is simply an illusion aided by science.

Only the Venezuelan officials who have promised to preserve Hugo Chavez and display his body "for eternity" inside a glass tomb know exactly how they're going to do it.

But if they were to follow procedures that are used in the United States, the technique might be rather simple: repeat embalming.

"The first thing to remember about embalming as we do it in the U.S. is that it is designed to delay the natural deterioration of the body; it's not forever," said Vernie Fountain, a licensed embalmer and owner and founder of the Fountain National Academy of Professional Embalming Skills in Springfield, Missouri.

So what does that mean exactly? You might want to put down your sandwich before you read on.

In the U.S., most embalmers use a machine that injects fluid laced with chemicals, principally formaldehyde, into an artery of the body, while the majority of the blood is emptied from a vein. Often a chemical known as a humectant is added, which "helps to fill out the body, some of the hollow spaces, and adds a degree of moisture," Fountain said.

While he stressed that he has no personal knowledge about the condition of Chavez's body at the time of his death or when it was or will be embalmed, Fountain said one possible method of preserving his corpse is to follow the embalming process with a periodic injection of humectant or something similar to keep moisture in the tissues. Makeup also helps to cover areas that have gone brown with dehydration.

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