Moving Parts

So it is not only the bones of the Admiral that have not been allowed to rest in peace.

Last week we learned that the (alleged) remains of former Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, and his wife Elena, have been brought out of the ground there in Bucharest, so that Science Men can paw over them in an attempt to determine whether those bodies are really who they say they are. The Ceausescus’ heirs successfully sued to reopen the graves, in response to two decades of wild Romanian rumors insisting that the bodies Are Not Really Them. If the bodies are Them, the heirs want to reinter them in a family plot.

Give us about six months, said the Science Men after the exhumation, then we’ll give you the Truth.

Meanwhile, over in Italy, the Galileo Museum in Florence has decided that The Thing To Do is to put bits of Galileo’s body on display—”three fingers and a gnarly molar.”

“He’s a secular saint, and relics are an important symbol of his fight for freedom of thought,” said Paolo Galluzzi, the director of the Galileo Museum, which put the tooth, thumb and index finger on view last month, uniting them with another of the scientist’s digits already in its collection.

“He’s a hero and martyr to science,” he added.

Jesus wept. Is there a reason why people can’t let moldering corpses lie? And what in the sam hill is it?

First, let us be clear that it is not just white folks who cannot leave off forking up and fondling the bodies of dead people. The Asmat people of Irian Jaya, for instance:

fight[] off powerful supernatural enemies by wearing bones of dead relatives around their necks. Constantly carried, fondled, and polished, the bones eventually acquire the patina and sheen of old ivory . . . In the upper river reaches, tribes wrap their dead in bark and lay them out on scaffolding only a few meters away from the house. The bodies are left there to rot, until only the skeleton is left; then the bones are brought into the house. A man might wear the skull of his mother around his neck so she can protect him in death as she did in life.

Among the Dani, also of Irian Jaya, if a person is considered to have been important enough in life, the body after death is dried and displayed.

This practice survives in the age of global tourism: “smoked chiefs” are brought out for a fee, propped on chairs or stools to be inspected and photographed. Some of these “smokers” have been around for seven generations or so.

This is apparently the same impulse that has led to setting out Galileo’s fingers and teeth for the delectation of the people of Florence.

In life, the Ceausescus were something of a pain. Mikhail Gorbachev couldn’t stand them; he developed “a personal dislike [of] the megalomaniac Romanian conducator and his domineering wife Elena. The grotesque personality cult surrounding the couple reminded him of the worst days of Stalin.” Gorbachev dubbed Ceausescu the “Romanian fuhrer” and made no secret of the fact that he would be delighted to see Ceausescu deposed.

Meanwhile, grotesque Westerners fawned all over Ceausescu, probably due to a knee-jerk desire to laud anyone who occasionally quarreled with the USSR. Richard Nixon praised Ceausescu’s “profound understanding of the world’s problems,” and the queen of England made him a Knight Grand Cross of the Order of the Bath, the highest honor she could bestow upon a foreigner.

In his own land, Ceausescu was portrayed by the Romanian court painter with orb and scepter, or ascending through the clouds with wife Elena, accompanied by white doves and cherubic children. The court poet pronounced him a “lay god” with a voice of “planetary resonance.” Romanian newspapers dubbed him “the Genius of the Carpathians” and com-pared him to Napoleon and Alexander, while dozens of museums were built to house his holy relics.

His country, however, was a mess—by some accounts even worse off than Albania. Over his 24 years in power, Ceausescu ordered hundreds of villages razed in the interest of something called “systematization,” even “civilization.” However, he generally neglected to make provisions for some new place for these people to go, and eventually the country’s agricultural sector collapsed. He attempted to create an industrial state out of thin air, lavishing money on such wonderments as an oil-refining industry that operated at only 10-percent capacity. Ceausescu-ordered energy cuts resulted in children contracting frostbite in their classrooms. Meanwhile, much of the historical section of Bucharest was obliterated to erect a “People’s Palace” of more than a thousand rooms, hung with five-ton chandeliers.

As I recounted here, Ceausescu’s “pro-life” policies were so extreme they had no equal . . . at least until the proposals of the McCain/Palin ticket of 2008.

Determined to boost the population of Romania from twenty-two million to thirty million by the year 2000, [Ceausescu] virtually outlawed abortion and contraception. The result was a surge in the number of unwanted children, a jump in the infant mortality rate, and the deaths of thousands of women who attempted illegal abortions every year . . . .

In 1966, a year after Ceausescu came to power, Romania adopted legislation providing for prison terms of up to five years for illegal abortions. An abortion was permitted only if a woman had already had five children. In 1986 the law was tightened further to ban abortions for any woman under the age of forty-five unless her life was endangered. There were severe penalties for doctors carrying out illegal abortions. These draconian restrictions were combined with a failure to create suitable living conditions for raising large families. Many women who were unable to face the prospect of having more children, and were too poor to bribe doctors for illegal abortions, attempted to self-abort. Others had the children only to abandon them later.

Under Ceausescu the Bucharest Municipal Hospital dealt with an average of three thousand failed abortions every year, including two hundred women who required major surgery. Many other women were too frightened to report to the hospital. The head of the hospital’s gynecological section estimated that well over a thousand women died in Bucharest every year as a result of bungled abortions. Gangrene of the uterus and permanent sterility were frequent complications.

Tens of thousands of abandoned Romanian children were housed in Dickensian orphanages . . . orphanages of course what Newt Gingrich has proposed for this country, as an alternative to abortion. The orphans were required to daily sing a song, of a type that Gingrich would surely want his orphans to sing, in his country.

how beautiful, how beautiful is my life
i can become what i want
i am a patriotic hawk of the fatherland
today the country is taking care of my childhood
how beautiful, how beautiful is my life
for my country, one day
i will sacrifice everything

When the end came for the Ceausescus, it came quickly.

In early December of 1989, thousands of demonstrators took to the streets in the western Romanian city of Timisoara, there to support a Lutheran priest that Ceausescu sought to deport for human-rights activities. Soldiers fired into the crowds, killing dozens of people. Because state-run media refused to report at all on these demonstrations and deaths, rumor seized the day: soon, much of Romania believed that thousands, even tens of thousands, of their fellow citizens had been killed, rather than dozens.

In an attempt to quiet the tumult, Ceausescu on December 21 planned a speech from the balcony of his palace, one in which he would, among other things, promise wage and pension hikes, amid the usual denunciations of “foreign imperialists” and “fascist hooligans.”

This time, it didn’t work. You can first hear, and then see it not working in the video embedded below.

For these sorts of routines, members of the secret police were always stationed in the front rows, to wave the appropriate banners and sound the appropriate chants. Communist party organizers always rounded up fixed quotas of “ordinary Romanians” to fill up the rest of the square. The volume level was routinely boosted by prerecorded applause booming from concealed loudspeakers.

This time, you can hear things starting to go wrong at about 2:35, when an inappropriate buzzing begins sounding from the “ordinary Romanians” gathered in the square. At about 3:12 Ceausescu breaks off his remarks, and begins tapping the microphone, shouting “Allo! Allo!,” as if he believed the problem to be technical, rather than human. Also at about this juncture, the people controlling the cameras, working for a Romanian station roughly the equivalent of Fox News, start panning away from the crowds to offer fixed shots of buildings. At about 5:19 the camera is again on Ceausescu, tentatively offering his signature wave, which is supposed to quiet all dissent.

Ceausescu does manage to finish his speech, but his reign is over. Riots in the streets of Bucharest itself, that night and stretching into the next morning, prompted Ceausescu and his wife to evacuate the palace by helicopter. By December 25 both were dead.

Ceausescu had long been a fanatic about personal security, even employing food tasters and dousing his hands in alcohol before and after touching foreign dignitaries—or his own people. Gorbachev had told Eastern European leaders as far back as 1986 that they were going to have to fend for themselves in any disputes with their people; the USSR was not going to bail them out. Recent events in Poland, East Germany, and Czechoslovakia had proved Gorbachev meant what he said. So, in fleeing the capital, Ceausescu planned to rely on his military, which, in contrast to his people, he had always endeavored to treat fairly well.

That didn’t work out so good. While en route to the spa town of Snagov, Ceausescu’s helicopter pilot claimed the craft had been spotted on radar, and so landed alongside a country road. He ushered the Ceausescus out of the helicopter, then suddenly took off again. The Ceausescus on their trek were next abandoned by their own bodyguards, and finally they were arrested by members of their own army.

The Ceausescus were “tried” on Christmas Day before a farcical tribunal that accused them of crimes of which they were not, in fact, guilty, including “depositing more than one billion dollars in foreign banks” and “the murder of more than sixty thousand people.” What their accusers were really in a ferment about is that the Ceausescus had engaged in “suppressing the soul of the nation,” and it was for that they were really executed, also on Christmas Day, more than thirty rifle rounds fired into each of them. They were then transported to the graves from which they were recently exhumed. Or not.

One of the many embarrassing utterances from Joseph Ratzinger, the former swastika-wearer who now sits under the big hat for the Catholic Church, came when he opined that the Inquisition was right, and Galileo was wrong. And note that this nonsense came after the church admitted in 1992 that the Inquisition had erred in denouncing Galileo as guilty of heresy, for his effrontery in asserting that the earth moves round the sun, rather than vice versa. Sayeth Ratzinger:

At the time of Galileo the Church remained much more faithful to reason than Galileo himself. The process against Galileo was reasonable and just.

Really, there’s nothing you can do with somebody like that. You certainly don’t want to make him pope.

Oh well.

Of course these people who have snatched, concealed, hoarded, sold, and displayed Galileo’s body parts, as if they were medieval true-believers unearthing and unveiling relics of a saint, are pretty embarrassing, too.

As a heretic [Galileo] could not be given a proper church burial. But for years after his death [in 1642], his followers in the circle of the grand dukes of Tuscany pushed to give him an honorable resting place.

Nearly a century later, in 1737, members of Florence’s cultural and scientific elite unearthed the scientist’s remains in a peculiar Masonic rite . . . According to a notary who recorded the strange proceedings, the historian and naturalist Giovanni Targioni Tozzetti used a knife to slice off several fingers, a tooth and a vertebra from Galileo’s body as souvenirs but refrained, it appears, from taking his brain. The scientist was then reburied in a ceremony, “symmetrical to a beatification[.]“

After taking their macabre souvenirs, the group placed Galileo’s remains in an elegant marble tomb in Florence’s Santa Croce church, a pointed statement from Tuscany’s powers that they were outside the Vatican’s control . . .

Galileo’s vertebra wound up at the University of Padua, famous for its medical school, while his middle finger wound up in the collection that formed the basis for the Galileo Museum. But the thumb, index finger and tooth disappeared in 1905, only to re-emerge last October, in an auction of reliquaries in Florence.

Got that? There in Florence, you can now auction off body parts.

Maybe, someday, the pope’s nose?

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4 Responses to “Moving Parts”


  1. 1 possum July 29, 2010 at 12:48 pm

    Is there a reason why people can’t let moldering corpses lie?

    Morbid fascination? I’d like to think it is not based in our cannibalistic tendencies but that, too, may be a real consideration.

    • 2 bluenred July 29, 2010 at 12:56 pm

      I hadn’t thought about that, the cannibal angle. I figured that maybe it had something to do with the same impulse that causes people to gawk at auto accidents, as I referenced here, in connection with why tabloids sell so many copies when they feature on the cover some dead celebrity in a coffin. Or maybe an inability to let go of the dead—as with the people of Irian Jaya, having the bits and bones around serves to somehow keep the dead “alive.” And of course with the relics people, whether spiritual or secular, there is some feeling that the bits and bones possess a sort of power.

  2. 3 possum July 29, 2010 at 1:11 pm

    Long time religious stuff reinforces the bones and spirits bit. Worshiping bones never worked for me. Must be something about growing up on a farm and finding bone bits in the woods. And now watching the surgeons destroy and repair bones with reckless abandon.

    Gawking is for me more a “there but for the grace of some power beyond my comprehension go I” or “thank goodness that is not me.”

    I always slow down at accident scenes on the highway even after complaining loud and clear every inch of the way to the scene about the terrible traffic. Go figure.

    Funerals and worship of bodies in caskets has not one bit of attraction for me. Something about dead stuff loses my focus in a hurry. Live things now are very different.

    • 4 bluenred July 31, 2010 at 7:40 am

      The nice way of looking at why people slow for auto accidents is that it springs from atavistic altruism—the impulse to help someone suffering. Probably there’s some of that in it.


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