On Friday I went to a lecture about the afterlife of Eva Perón, the former first lady of Argentina, held at the wonderful Observatory space near the Gowanus Canal. Observatory is really just a back room inside Proteus Gowanus, an art space/gallery/office for Cabinet magazine, but their programming makes for a great evening — assuming that staring at slides of anatomical models or damaged corpses is your idea of a good time. (Clearly, it’s mine.) Plus, once you’re drunk on facts and cheap wine, you can wander out to the Morbid Anatomy library and admire all of Joanna’s books and artifacts, like the set of real teeth she has displayed in velvet.
The lecture, presented by Margaret Schwartz, showed that Evita is a great example of how corpses can become contested objects, fought over by loved ones, devotees, and authorities who want to control the way the memory of the deceased is preserved and displayed. The situation is all the more difficult because of the troubled space corpses occupy between the animate and inanimate (even the most atheist among us get really weird around corpses).
Here’s Evita’s afterlife, in brief; I’m relying on my (admittedly fallible) memory of Schwartz’s talk, as well as the indispensable After the Funeral:
After she died of cancer in 1952 at the age of 33, Eva was meticulously embalmed by Dr. Pedro Ara. Ara was a Spanish embalmer who was among the best of his time; he preferred to call himself a practitioner of the “art of death,” and believed in his work so much that he carried the perfectly preserved head of a peasant as a kind of portfolio.
At first, Ara embalmed Evita only long enough for a public viewing, which stretched from a few days to a few weeks as the crowds kept pouring in to weep over their fallen idol. Eventually Ara protested that he needed to get back to work on the body, to prepare it for the grand monument her husband Juan Perón had planned. It was to be larger than the Statue of Liberty.
The second embalming, designed to last forever, took two years and cost over $100,000 dollars. The corpse was immersed in numerous baths of chemicals, and coated in several layers of plastic. The effect was so surreal that later viewers were convinced the body was actually a statue. However, Juan Perón was overthrown before the monument got much past the construction of a hole in the ground, which was later converted into a swimming pool.
When the new Argentine regime discovered Eva’s corpse, they had to cut off a finger and analyze it to make sure the object was really human. Assured it was, they had no idea what to do with the thing: they couldn’t bury it, because the grave would become a pilgrimage site for Perónists the junta wanted to suppress, and they couldn’t destroy it, out of religious considerations. Instead the body disappeared, moved from site to site by the junta, and guarded by a cast of characters that included an army major who shot his wife while the corpse was in their apartment, and a group of soldiers who accidentally bayoneted themselves while driving the corpse in a van.
(Strangely, someone in the Perón camp always knew where Evita’s body was. Whherever she went, flowers and candles would mysteriously appear overnight.)
Eventually, Evita was buried in Milan under the name of an Italian citizen who had recently died in Argentina. That worked for a while, but by 1970 things had gotten so bad in Argentina that those in power wanted Perón back. Perón had certain conditions, however, including the return of his wife’s body.
At around the same time, a former president, Pedro Eugenio Aramburu, was kidnapped and executed by guerrillas, who refused to return his body until Evita’s corpse was returned to “the people”. Aramburu was among the few who knew where Evita’s body was, and had left a sealed letter detailing her secret gravesite in Italy. Lawyers produced the letter, and Evita was exhumed and delivered to Perón. (Aramburu’s body was also returned to his family.)
Aside from a broken nose, damaged feet, and a few gashes on her face, Evita was actually in pretty good shape. She was kept at Perón’s villa for a while, even sitting in the dinner room while Perón and his new wife ate their meals. According to After the Funeral, when Perón returned to Argentina to resume power, he left Evita behind, and it was only when the same guerillas re-kidnapped Aramburu’s body that Evita’s body was finally returned to the country. Today Evita lies in the glamorous Recoleta cemetery, right next to all the aristocrats she railed against.
At least Eva has been able to rest peace since then. Juan, who died in 1974, wasn’t so lucky: thieves stole into his coffin in 1987 and cut of his hands, demanding an $8m ransom. None was forthcoming, and so the kidnappers destroyed them.