Sometimes it takes a while to notice national characteristics or manias. I learned early on that mushroom picking and harvesting change from unwary shoppers were national pursuits on a par with English cricket or American baseball, but only recently have I stumbled on the Polish national obsession with exhumation. There seems to be something about a buried body that nags at the Polish consciousness, especially if the body belonged to somebody famous. A Pole who does anything of note in his or her life has a slim chance of resting peacefully in the grave. Some manage to get in a good few centuries coffin time before they are unearthed, others barely have time to begin decomposing before the shovels start clanking away, and a few have been dug up and reburied so many times they may as well have had revolving doors installed on their tombs. Either lying around under the earth just offends the Polish work ethic, or there is something else going on. I wouldn’t be the first internationally-renowned authority on Poland to note the Polish tendency to poke at sleeping dogs, assuming I was an internationally-renowned authority on Poland.
The grave – not necessarily the permanent residence of the Pole.
By randomly clicking through the Wikipedia entries for famous Poles I’ve come up with a startlingly long list of them who have been dug up in one form or another. Since I consider this article the founding document in the soon-to-be burgeoning study of Poland-based exhumania I’ve organized it under three separate morbid reasons
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Reason 1: Maybe he was a saint?
This question usually comes into play shortly after a particularly religious or holy person has snuffed it and is part of a wider Catholic and Orthodox obsession with the incorruptibility of the sacred. In both of these faiths the failure of a body to decompose in the normal manner is seen as evidence of sainthood. Consequently, if you were a noted holy person during your life the temptation to dig you up and see of you’ve decomposed yet is eventually going to be overwhelming.
Incorruptible saints have a long history in Central and Eastern Europe. One of the reasons the communists preserved Lenin and put him on public display was to capture some of the Russian people’s centuries-old adoration of incorruptible bodies for their secular saint. The practice of exhuming popular bishops, priests, and cardinals was rife in Poland throughout much of its history. It is still one of the favorite “miracles” among the faithful today. The story of Padre Pio’s miraculous state of incorruptibility when he was exhumed in 2008 was all over Poland. The fact that the Catholic Church had quite deliberately and clearly stated that he had been artificially preserved and that they had put a latex mask on his face for public viewing didn’t stop thousands jumping up and down and claiming incorruptibility.
The story of Piotr Skarga is instructive on this point. Skarga was a renowned and highly respected Polish Jesuit during the period of the Counter-Reformation. Once he had died and people could no longer contain their excitement over whether he had decomposed or not he was duly dug up and inspected to see how saintly he was. Unfortunately for Skarga the examination revealed that he was indeed in a miraculously good state of preservation, but that he had accidentally been buried alive and therefore wasn’t eligible for sainthood. Seems a little unfair. There was probably some boring political reason that I can’t be bothered to research.
Hmm, I see exhumation in my future
Think we’ve seen the last of Jan Pawel II? I’d lay good money that his “incorruptible” visage will be staring out at us from the front page of gazeta.pl before too long.
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Reason 2: Dead, but in the wrong place.
The fact that a lot of notable Poles have found it necessary to move to other countries in order to become notable rather than, say, rotting in a Russian prison has meant that a lot of them have died away from the motherland. Although Poles are justifiably proud of their great and good they get a little nervous when said great and good aren’t conveniently lying around in Polish soil so that they can point them out to tourists. Dying as a famous Pole in a foreign country, especially if you’re a poet, makes you a prime candidate for the exhumation game.
Of the three giants of Polish literature (Adam Mickiewicz, Juliusz Słowacki, and Zygmunt Krasiński) two thirds (that’s two of them) were exhumed and reburied in Poland. Mickiewicz has the dubious honor of having been exhumed and reburied twice. He died in 1855 in Istanbul and was buried in handy crypt he happened to have in his basement. Seriously. Shortly thereafter he was exhumed and reburied in Montmorency near Paris and in 1900 he was exhumed again and moved to Wawel Cathedral in Krakow. So far he has managed to remain buried for over a hundred years, but I wouldn’t rule out the possibility of a triple just yet.
Mickiewicz, exhumed twice… so far
Other famous grave dodgers include Henryk Sienkiewicz, who had the rare privilege of being cremated somewhere between his first burial in Switzerland and his second in Warsaw, Józef Bem, who went six feet under in Aleppo and ended up doing it all over again in Tarnów 79 years later, and Stanisław Witkiewicz (known as Witkacy), who is my favorite. Witkacy was a famously loony playwright, novelist, painter, and photographer who delighted in confounding expectations. He famously killed himself somewhere in eastern Poland a few days after the German invasion in 1939 and was buried there. Years later he was exhumed and moved to his beloved Zakopane, except he wasn’t. Somehow the communist authorities managed to dig up the wrong body and, realizing their mistake, refused to allow anyone to look in the coffin before the remains were reburied. In 1994 the remains were exhumed (again) and found to be those of a Ukranian woman. Some theories hold that Witkacy didn’t in fact commit suicide and lived out the rest of his life in Łódź. Whether in Łódź or absurdist heaven Witkacy was surely laughing his rear end off.
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Reason 3: Hey!
Moving into the period of the reborn Poland, post 1989, a new exhumation theme emerges – the theme of vindication, proof and blatant curiosity. The paradigm of this new excuse to dig up the dead has to be the case of Władysław Sikorski. Sikorski died in a plane crash off Gibraltar that may or may not have been orchestrated by British Intelligence, Russian spies, or malignant Venusians. Like Mickiewicz he achieved the rare double exhumation. He was first buried in Newark-on-Trent, England shortly after his death, and reburied in Wawel Cathedral in Krakow in 1993. He was exhumed again in 2008 as part of an investigation to find out if he had been bumped off or not. The unpopular results suggested that he had died from crashing into the Mediterranean in an airplane. Who knows how long it will be until somebody comes up with a new reason to unearth the general and subject him to further tests.
Sikorski – a sure candidate for the triple exhumation?
Other examples include the bizarre search for the body of Copernicus, which went on for years and finally ended with the announcement that his remains had been found in 2008. They knew he was dead, and they knew he was buried under Frombork Cathedral so exactly why they felt the need to dig up his body I am unable to fathom. Presumably it was to see if he was wearing an “I love Poland” tee-shirt thereby ending centuries of controversy over whether he was actually Polish or German.
In 2008 the Polish government was petitioned for permission to “exhume” the heart of Frédéric Chopin, which was “buried” inside a pillar of Warsaw’s Kościół świętokrzyski (Holy Cross Church) in order to find out if the composer had died of tuberculosis or cystic fibrosis, because that’s really important to know. Chopin’s heart had previously been exhumed and hidden during the war to save it from German heart thieves. The rest of Chopin’s body has been safely entombed in Paris for 160 years, but who knows.