Exhuming Former Leaders: The New Summer Pastime?

Simón Bolívar

Don’t go calling it a trend, but there were two politically-charged exhumations in the past week — both of national importance for their respective countries, and both to investigate suspicious deaths.

First, in Venezuela, Hugo Chavez had the remains of Simon Bolivar exhumed to investigate whether the independence hero was assassinated, possibly by poisoning (most historians think he died of tuberculosis). Chavez tweeted: “It’s not a skeleton. It’s the Great Bolivar, who has returned.”

Meanwhile, in Romania, the bodies of notorious former dictator Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife Elena were exhumed for DNA testing. The couple are said to have been executed by a firing squad in 1989 and buried in the Ghencea cemetery in Bucharest, but rumors have since swirled that they were secretly buried elsewhere, or somehow escaped death. According to a Telegraph article on the exhumation:

Their bloodied bodies were shown on TV after the firing squad had done its work but the actual execution took place so quickly that the cameraman failed to film the moment they were actually shot. The fact that the country’s new rulers opted to bury the Ceausescus secretly at night and under false names also fuelled doubts.

If the remains are confirmed to be genuine, the family wants to organise a proper funeral service, more than twenty years after the event, and to erect an imposing mausoleum for the infamous couple.

The Ceausescu story reminds me of the saga of Jesse James, exhumed in 1995 because of feuding claims by his descendants, and rumors that his death could have been faked. DNA analysis proved that the remains did in fact belong to James, which is frankly kind of disappointing. Lee Harvey Oswald was also exhumed just to make sure it was him and not a Soviet spy, and the results satisfied all but the most die-hard conspiracy theorists. Oh well, there’s always Elvis!

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