Chopin's Gravest Fear
Chopin died in 1849 and was buried at the Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris. His heart, however, was taken out and taken to Warsaw. Was it because he wanted part of him to rest eternally in his lost homeland, or was there a more macabre reason?
Fryderyk Chopin was arguably the epitome of a romantic character. A genius unable to settle down, a lover in a convoluted relationship, a creator capable of working non-stop for days despite his miserable health, a musical prodigy who captivated Europe’s music elite in early adolescence. He is also reputed to be a such a staunch patriot who longed for his lost homeland so much that he requested on his deathbed that his heart be taken out of his body and buried in his beloved Poland while the rest of him was interred in Paris. While there is no questioning Chopin’s patriotism, a few of his last words lead to believe that there may have been another, much more bizarre, reason why the maestro was so eager to part with his insides.
Throughout his last months, Chopin was struggling with a progressing illness, and he fought to remain active as a composer and musician despite growing weaker and weaker. By the end of September 1849, Chopin was so frail that he could no longer walk, and was therefore bed-ridden in his Paris flat. Soon his sister arrived from Warsaw to take care of him. It had become obvious that Chopin’s days are numbered.
Every day many people came to say their goodbyes, but very few of them were allowed to enter his room and actually speak to him. Chopin died (in all likeliness, as the scholars are not unanimous) of tuberculosis on October 17th, 1849. His last words were dramatic. He said:
‘The earth is suffocating... As this cough will choke me, I implore you to have my body opened, so that I may not be buried alive.’
From these baffling words we can conclude that the great pianist feared to be buried alive. While such a concern may seem completely far-fetched in this era of science, Chopin was not alone in dreading to wake up in his grave – whether it be as a living man buried prematurely, or as a supernatural creature of the night. Medical knowledge about clinical death was at the time so meagre bodies of deceased people tended to be buried as soon as possible, mostly for reasons of hygiene during the cholera epidemics. More than a few cases were reported, leading to a whole range of measures being taken before burial to prevent the fearful incident (including safety coffins with a bell that could be rung from the inside).
What Chopin’s sister Ludwika (responsible for executing his last will and liquidating his flat) did was in keeping with Chopin’s wishes. She asked to open his body, take the heart of out it and put it in a crystal urn filled with cognac. But why did she take it to Poland and leave it to be installed inside a pillar of the Church of the Holy Cross in Warsaw, where it remains to date?
She was merely executing his will. A few days before his death, Chopin had had a moment of clarity, and had told his closest friends that:
‘I know that Paskiewicz (a imposed tsarist ruler of occupied Warsaw – editorial note) will not allow my body to be brought to Warsaw, so at least bring my heart over there.’
It is unclear if Chopin literally wanted his heart to be taken out and transported to Warsaw, or if it was yet another poetic way to express longing for his fatherland.
We will never know. The 19th century widespread fear of being buried alive may have gotten to Chopin in the end, or he perhaps wanted to spite the tsarist occupier, or simply longed for a part of himself to be in his native land and Ludwika heeded to his wishes, whatever motivated them. All in all, Chopin should be content; he was not buried alive (good for him), and Poles are proud to boast that his love for Poland transcended even death!
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Author: Wojciech Oleksiak, 14.07.2014.