I was barely awake when I flipped open my laptop and saw the photo. I gasped. It was of a dead woman — a nun — in a crystal casket, her face lit from the interior. And the caption read, “At the Mother Cabrini Shrine in NYC.” I emailed my friend asking him where I could see the embalmed body of the first naturalized American saint. “Don’t worry, I’ll stop by your place tomorrow and we’ll walk over there,” he told me. For thirteen years I’d lived within walking distance of a famous dead person on public display. I couldn’t have been more thrilled if I’d just learned that the Palace of Versailles was under my kitchen counter.
MOSCOW — January 2003
No sooner had I checked into the Hotel Rossiya shortly before midnight than I’d thrown my bag in my room and headed for the restaurant on the top floor. I ordered a glass of vodka, torched up a Marlboro and stood in front of the floor-to-ceiling windows and gazed out. The snow drifted and swirled through the vastness of Red Square, the Kremlin clock tower was at eye level just across the street and in the foreground the polychromatic domes of Saint Basil’s Cathedral. And just to the right I could barely make it out: near the Kremlin ramparts, a place that had intrigued me since I was a child, a place I’d read about and studied: the mausoleum containing the perfectly preserved body of Vladimir Lenin. The snow, the vodka, my tiny dish of caviar — it was almost too much to take in all at once. And in my head cranked an belting choral version of the Communist Internationale; I stared down at the place that was once forbidden for me to see for most of my life, and now here I was in the former Soviet Union.
I barely slept that night, amazed that every time I awoke the the enormous Kremlin time piece was staring back at me from just across the way. But when morning whitened my room through the lace curtains, I layered up and headed out to look history square in the face.
Red Square was silent and still, save for two soldiers who were nyet-ing a backpacker as he attempted to photograph the entrance of Lenin’s tomb. I approached the sentries; slowly they nodded for me to go inside. I descended into the black marble, mirrored by somber lighting on all sides. At the bottom, a guard lifted his jaw motioning for me to continue to the left. I went down a few more steps. Then I turned around and looked up at the plinth. I could see the back of the glowing casket beneath the soaring black and red granite tomb, solders standing at cardinal points.
I stepped up and made my way toward him and saw his face bathed in amber light: history in the flesh. Here was a man who, for better or for worse, at one point had as much influence on the world’s population as Jesus Christ. Here was the body of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, dead for seventy-nine years, yet looking as though he’d open his eyes at any second. I smiled incredulously and silently mouthed, “wow.” His right hand — the one the embalmers were unable to fully repair in 1924 — was formed into a shriveled fist. Yet the rest of him, inside the climate-controlled bronze and crystal casket, glowed with absolute perfection. I walked around him several times until one of the soldiers stoically looked at me and motioned toward the exit door. I nodded humbly and stepped back out into a blindingly bright Red Square.
HANOI — March 2004
My cyclo driver rode up to the gate and explained the procedures. “First you must watch the very nice film of Ho Chi Minh,” he told me. ”Then you check your bag over there — no charge for you, foreigner! Then you stand on that side and your guide will take you through the park to see the Uncle Ho! I see you in maybe two hours.”
A procession of VietNamese bridal parties bypassed our guided-tour and proceeded directly to the city’s best photo-op: the exterior of the mausoleum. Meanwhile, the rest of the travelers and I, plus many VietNamese who saw today’s jaunt as a pilgrimage, were forced to watch the “very nice” film in a small classroom. It was shown to us in, of course, very nice VietNamese.
The large speakers mounted throughout the surrounding parkland crackled out various patriotic tunes praising Ho Chi Minh; one of which, even eight years later, still rings in my ears like swarms of angry cicadas. The elderly were whisked away in golf carts while the rest of us queued up single-file in the drizzling weather while various guides came over to cast disapproving glowers at the group of laughing Germans. Another guard came to our group and explained that we couldn’t take photos or smoke or drink and to never “fold your arms across your chests and do not put your hands in your pockets at any time.”
After the lecture, we walked across the parade grounds towards the mausoleum which, while inspired by Lenin’s tomb, is roughly three times the size of its Moscovite comrade. As we entered, the Party faithful were frantically buying plastic flowers by the armload and jostling back in line up the wide marble staircase while guards attempted to hold back the tide as a deluge of glassy-eyed VietNamese pressed on to the main chamber
The murmuring reverberated against the high ceilings. And in the center, the casket seemed to float on a pond of faux flora surrounded by an adoring throng of brides, retired military veterans in faded uniforms, and woman in traditional ao dais with their hair that appeared coiffed just for the occasion. The room vibrated with a religious carnival-like atmosphere. While some presented their arrangements with reverence, mausoleum workers quickly snatched up nearby plastic and silk flowers and handed them off to their coworkers who raced them downstairs to be resold. Women cried and toddlers were lifted up. People swayed in a human sea of adulation.
And then there was Uncle Ho. While Ho Chi Minh was on his deathbed in 1969 he made it perfectly clear that he wished to be cremated and not preserved like his idol, Lenin. But it was already too late for protestations; for months a team of extremely skilled Soviet embalmers had been assembled and lay in waiting outside of Hanoi with the tools of their trade: alcohol, glycerol, formalin, and formaldehyde to disinfect, inject, and bathe the body
Yet, with all that preparation and requisite refrigeration — not to mention the body’s annual refurbishing visits to Moscow — his physical preservation still paled in comparison to the suffocating presentation that surrounded him. Yes, Ho Chi Minh was well preserved — but not nearly as much as his legacy.
NEW YORK CITY — August 2012
In upper Manhattan, just steps away from the 190th Street stop on the A line, is the shrine to Saint Frances Xavier Cabrini. For years I’ve informed friends as we passed under the shadow of the looming oaks that Mother Cabrini was born in Northern Italy and came to the United States in the late 1800s to work with the recent influx of poor Italian immigrants. But my favorite tenuously related factoid about the Catholic saint was that the infamous, now demolished, housing projects in Chicago were named after her, and those buildings were the setting for the 1970’s sitcom Good Times. Yet, during all my perambulations past the building’s high brick walls, I didn’t know the best part of all: America’s first naturalized saint, and the only saint on display in the United States, lay just beyond the courtyard.
It was far more airy and bright than I expected. Built in 1957, the building is true to its time period in terms of stark hard-edged design, and in the nave above is a stunningly detailed mosaic depicting scenes from Cabrini’s life in a style reminiscent of illustrated children’s books from the early 1950s. I approached the crystal and brass coffin embedded in the altar and knelt for closer inspection.
Scrunching my brow I came away from the dais and Alan came nearer and whispered, “So, after seeing Uncle Ho and Voldya, how does she stack up?”
“Without a doubt her head is solid wax. I’ve seen jarred Yankee Candles that look more lifelike. I half-expected to see a wick on her wimple. Her hands, however, may be real but those are easier to make.”
We walked around admiring the stained glass windows, and studied the case containing some of her personal effects, such as Mother Cabrini’s suspiciously white un-oxidized nightgowns, a few lovely French enameled picture frames, and a comb. Yet the oddest holy relic featured in the display was her saintly denture spring. “I think that’s a bit insensitive,” I whispered under my breath.
We heard the echoic click of heels heading in our direction. It was a small woman with a rather plump face, her arms clasped behind her back. As she approached, she cocked her head and beamed a smile that looked as though she’d just swallowed chunks of milk.
“Good afternoon, I’m Helen and you are…?”
We introduced ourselves and explained how we lived nearby. “I’ve been in this neighborhood for over a decade,” I explained. “I had no idea this was here. It’s really lovely; I’m very impressed.”
Helen was certainly not impressed with us and while she munched her imaginary milk, she launched, without prompting, into a nasally Brooklynese spiel about the body:
“Fourteen years after she died, she was exhumed and it was a miracle because the body hadn’t decayed. She’s what’s called an ‘incorruptible,’ because she was so holy that when they opened the casket she even smelled like flowers. Some bones from her arms were given to a shrine in Chicago, her heart is in northern Italy, and her head’s in Rome.”
Wait a minute. “So, can you tell me, Helen, why is her head in Rome?”
Helen shifted on her feet and ran her fingers through her hair in frustration. “Because she was Italian and they wanted the head as a relic,” she sighed. “It’s in a convent or somewhere. It’s holy.”
That certainly explained everything. Alan asked her which pope was featured in the mosaic and Helen responded that she thought it “was Gregory” but that she wasn’t “too sure.” Helen was reaching a breaking point when Alan asked about the “famous bench in the mosaic, which is like the one in the garden outside. Can you tell us the significance of the bench?” Helen was furious:
“Saint Cabrini liked to sit down a lot and look out. She loved hilltops. I don’t know what makes it so special. She liked to sit on the bench. No one ever asked me that before! I don’t know where she used to sit. Maybe she sat here or something. That bench has always been here and it’s holy. And that’s all I know about the bench. Holy.”
Alan and I walked around a bit more, licking our wounds from the wrath of Helen, while admiring the attenuated statues, and snarling at the newfangled push-button electric candles. We were nearly out the door when Alan suggested we stop in the gift shop. And there she was again: Helen.
She lit up like a flame-engulfed Christmas tree. It was as though we had entered a parallel universe. “Well,” she sing-song’d. “Welcome baaaack! Have you been in our gift shop before?”
I tucked my head to Alan’s ear, “What the fuck is going on here? What just happened to us?”
Helen was dancing around breezily like a school girl amidst the Cabrini postcards, and magnets, and rosaries, and statues. “Oh! And we have a special thing we do here,” she explained. She took out a ledger and went in for the kill. “For only ten dollars, you can have a prayer said for your whole family for an entire day! You see, I write down the date you want and then we make the paper and on that day we place it in the prayer room and there it stays there aaall day long! Isn’t that marvelous?”
“Oh, yes, that’s just marvelous, Helen.”
Alan reached for his wallet and pulled out the required ten dollars. Helen bounced with joy and shoving the pen in Alan’s hand while slobbering out her instructions, “Great! Here! Fill it out! Your prayer will be there aaall day! Oh, praises!”
I murmured through clenched teeth as he filled out his prayer form, “Alan, honey, you’re a Jew, what are you doing?”
Helen couldn’t hear a word we were saying. She just manically babbled and counted the day’s lucre while merrily chirping that she only had “a few more prayer days leeeeft!” Then she spun around to an elderly nun behind the counter and sang, “Sister Theresaaaa, we’re almost done for the daaay!” Sister Theresa grunted, snarled at Helen, and plopped down on a stool.
As we were leaving, Helen was waving and panting for us to “come back sooooon!”
We walked into the courtyard and sat on Mother Cabrini’s curious bench and Alan said, “That ten bucks was worth it; it’s cheaper than an amusement park and to see Helen morph from nasty ninny to breathless schoolgirl was priceless.”
“Yeah, good times. Ain’t we lucky we got ’em.”
“I’m pretty sure Mother Cabrini wasn’t the only one in that place with a candle head.”
“Hope they get their air conditioning checked — It’s going to be a hot summer — I’d hate for her head to melt.”