Death is Only the Beginning: The Restless Hearts, Bodies & Ashes of the Polish Dead
Chopin’s heart travelling on the train in his sister’s lap, the three funerals (and one scandal) of a national bard, or Słowacki arriving in Warsaw some 70 years after his death aboard the ‘Mickiewicz’ ship... Culture.pl takes a look at the most famous Polish dead, and the macabre, strange and haunting afterlife of Polish bodies.
The history of Polish bodies is a fascinating if gory tale. From the dismembered bodies of Polish saints, to the travelling bodies and vital organs of Polish poets and statesmen, who all have returned to their home country in one way or another, sometimes centuries after their demise. In case of many, their political influence on the Polish national community continued well after their death, contributing to keeping alive the patriotic spirit of the subjugated nation. What does all this reveal about the peculiar relationship between Poles and their dead?
The death that initiated Poland
The history of the Polish dead is surely as old as Poland itself (actually it must obviously be older). Yet some deaths and some dead were just more important and even instrumental in shaping the very existence of the country.
One of the first Polish deaths and Polish bodies that acquired political meaning, was that of Saint Adalbert of Prague (or as Poles call him: Wojciech). Adalbert was a Bohemian missionary and the bishop of Gniezno. In the late 10th century, he set out on a mission that took him to the pagan tribes of the Baltic coast, but it ended with his death in 997CE.
Because the rulers of Bohemia refused to pay the tribes the ransom they wanted for Adalbert's body, it ended up being purchased by Poles. This decision by the Polish duke Bolesław Chrobry proved to be crucial for the whole process of the formation of the early Polish state.
Adalbert’s body became a key element in a political game of power between Bolesław and the Holy Roman Emperor Otto III. The stake: Poland’s position within the Western Christian world, only three decades after the adoption of Christianity by the first Polish ruler.
When three years later Otto came to Gniezno he had a firm intention of obtaining the body of the new Christian saint. Instead he returned to Germany with only Adalbert's one arm - this relic was then buried in Aachen and Rome - and he also bestowed Bolesław with new crucial rights.
The dead body of Adalbert/Wojciech became a foundation of the archdiochese established in Gniezno in 1000 by Otto III. It meant that the Polish king now had supervision over not only this bishopry but all other prospective bishopries to be established in his Slavic domain. Thus Poland gained much needed political independence, and was now considered an equal of the Western European leaders.
As to the body of Adalbert, it was stolen from the Gniezno Cathedral only some 40 years later. The theft was part of many raids led by Bohemian Duke Břetislav I, who perhaps had been regretting his forefathers refusal to pay the body's original ransom.
Dismembered body of the saint as political prefiguration
But it was the martyr death of another Polish bishop, Stanisław of Szczepanów, which became a long-lasting symbol of Poland's political fate. Stanisław had engaged in an open political conflict with the Polish king Boleslaus II the Bold, and according to legend was slain by the king himself in 1079, likely at the Wawel Cathedral. His body was then cut into pieces and scattered to be devoured by wild beasts. The legend goes that these chunks of flesh miraculously reintegrated back together, a story which subsequently came to be interpreted as a prefiguration of Poland's territorial partitions and the ultimate re-unification of the state.
Veneration of Stanisław started immediately after his death. In 1088, his relics were moved to Wawel Cathedral which began a tradition of state burials in Kraków. In 1253, he was canonised by Pope Innocent IV, becoming a patron saint of Poland. The story of his agonising death and dismembered body was to serve as a key trope of Polish religious and political imagery for many generations to come.
The death of a Sarmatian
During the next few centuries, Poland (the Polish aristocracy in particular) developed an elaborate and impressive sepulchral culture of its own. Relying heavily on antique Roman sources, it involved spectacular processions (the so-called pompae funebris), with huge imposing structures set in churches, known as castra doloris (castles of grief), which were surely more reminiscent of works of architecture than sculpture, as well as splendid coffin painting.
Funerals for members of the most important Polish noble families could last for many days, and could even take place years after the actual death. It was deemed necessary so that there was time to prepare the ceremonies and await guests who often had to travel great distances.
Irish historian Bernard O'Connor, who visited Poland in the late 17th century, wrote:
There is so much pomp and ceremony in Polish funerals that you would sooner take them to be a triumphant event than the burial of the dead.
A tomb of the soul
One of the most significant developments in Polish sepulchral tradition were seperate burials for the heart and body. They were buried in different locations, usually in accordance with the departed's last will and testament, and often hundreds of kilometres away from one another.
According to Christian tradition, the heart was considered the seat of the soul. Thus, in the Polish sepulchral tradition, an urn containing a heart was sometimes referred to as the ‘tomb of the soul’ (grób duszy). The burial sites - most usually located in churches - were seen not only as places of commemoration, but also of great spiritual power.
One of the first Polish kings to have had his heart buried separately from the body was Władysław Jagiełło (Jogaila). His heart was buried in the church in Gródek Jagielloński (today's Horodok in Ukraine) where the king died, while his body was taken to Kraków and buried at Wawel Cathedral. Jagiełło's death initiated a tradition of royal burials in the ancient capital of Poland, even continuing for centuries after Kraków ceased to be the country’s capital.
The tradition, at first reserved for saints and kings, was soon transformed by the changing political situation of the country. First it extended to members of nobility, but eventually went on to also include Polish statesmen, poets and artists, namely people whose lives and work was considered essential to the survival of the nation.
One of the first modern figures from Polish history to have engaged in this tradition was Tadeusz Kościuszko. Before his death, he had asked for his heart to be left with his favourite student Tadea Emilia Zeltner – the daughter of the Swiss family in whose house he had spent his final years. The heart was initially kept in a metal urn in Solothurn, before it was tranferred to Verese, near Lugano, where for the next several decades it was kept in an 'unlocked urn' in a private garden. In 1895, it was handed over to officials from the newly-opened Polish Musem in Rapperswil, Switzerland. It was only in 1927, that the urn finally made it to Kościuszko's homeland, where it was laid to rest at the Royal Castle in Warsaw where it remains to this day.
On Polish soil?
The era of partitions with its national uprisings and subsequent repressions resulted in deportation and emigration from occupied Poland. It meant that generations of Poles not only began to live in other countries but they also began to die on foreign soil. Being buried on foreign soil, however, was a condition that was almost always seen as interim.
This era engendered another peculiar sepulchral custom, unknown to other nations. It was a custom that would survive long after Poland returned to the map and long after Poles could return to their homeland after a century of emigration.
Leaving Poland, Poles now took with them a clump of soil from their homeland, which they would then preserve as their greatest treasure until death (it was usually kept in a small bundle sewn tightly together). A handful of this dirt was then strewn onto the closed eyes of the dead or thrown on their coffins during funerals in whichever foreign land the Poles had ended up settling in.
In this symbolic way, Poles were making a return to the 'soil of ancestors'. This became a widespread practice across the whole 19th century and even beyond, from the corners of Siberia to the seats of Polish emigration in Western Europe, like France and England. In 1841, for example, when the old poet and veteran patriot Julian Ursyn Niemcewicz was buried in Montmorency in Paris, Polish soil was scattered on his coffin by many of the Poles attending.
After the partitions, when Poland ceased to exist as a political entity, the tradition of double burials acquired new meanings. One of the first artists whose body was subjected to this new national tradition was Fryderyk Chopin.
The genius pianist and composer had left Poland in 1830 and spent the rest of his life in exile. Although he never returned to his homeland, Poland remained a constant presence in his art. Upon his death on 17th October 1949, the pianist had been fully aware that in the face of the political situation in the country, a burial in Poland was out of the question. The Russians would simply not allow it. In his last will, Chopin expressed, somewhat equivocally, a wish that his heart be taken to Poland.
Following his death, Chopin’s heart was removed from his body, an occurrence which some biographers put down to the last words allegedly uttered by the musician on his deathbed. According to them, Chopin was extremely afraid of being buried alive (not a seldom occurrence during this period)…
In any case, when Chopin’s body was being interred at the Père-Lachaise Cemetery to the solemn sounds of the composer’s own The Funeral March on 30th October 1849, his heart was already somewhere else. And it had a long journey ahead.
Some two months after the burial, the heart, now in a crystal urn filled with alcohol (likely cognac), was taken to Poland by Chopin’s older sister. The story goes that while crossing the Prussian-Russian border, Ludwika had to smuggle the jar in the ample folds of her dress.
Shortly after her arrival in Warsaw, she secretly handed over the valuable package to the Church of the Holy Cross. Some 30 years later, it was put in a specially-designed epitaph with a quote from the Gospel of Saint Mathew: 'Where your treasure is, there will your heart be'. Chopin’s heart has been kept in the niche of the church ever since, with the short exception of the Second World War period when it was stolen by Germans.
Mickiewicz’s body: three funerals & a scandal
But it was another Polish emigre whose dead body came to epitomise the ultimate dead of Polish culture. Adam Mickiewicz, who had already left Poland in 1824, spent the next thirty years in exile, pursuing a shifting career of poet, politician and social activist. His busy life ended in Constantinople where the poet was engaged in his last major work, trying to establish a Polish legion to fight in the Crimean War. His unexpected death left the local Polish diaspora flabbergasted about the prospective destiny of his body.
The death sparked debates regarding the place of burial, with the capital of the Ottoman Empire being one of the suggested locations. It was only some time later that it was decided that the body would be transported to Paris, France, where the poet had spent most of the last 25 years of his life.
During these days of debate, Mickiewicz's friends did everything they could to conceal the most likely cause of death, cholera, as it could have prevented transportation of the body. Still, it was under such circumstances that the house of the poet in the Pera district of the city became his first, if interim, place of burial.
On 31st December 1855, a procession meandered through the city, escorting the body to a ship. The vast crowd in attendance was made up of a mix of people, not only Poles. It came to be seen as the first funeral of Mickiewicz, in what was to become a series of them.
Mickiewicz's body was transported by sea to France, where some three weeks later the corpse was laid to rest at Les Champeaux Cemetery in Montmorency, near Paris, with a huge Polish Parisian crowd in attendance. A preceding mass at Saint Madeleine Church ended in a scandal when two Polish expats (one of them a count) broke out into a fight.
Yet this was not the end to the posthumous odyssey of Mickiewicz’s body. Forty-five years later in 1890, the Poles in France decided to disinter the body and translate the ashes of the national Polish poet to his homeland. On 28th June 1890, a big crowd of Polish emigrants once again gathered at Mickiewicz’s grave to attend the disinterment. The French gravediggers sawed Mickieiwcz’s old coffin into little pieces which they then sold as relics to the Poles.
The third funeral, which took place on 4th July in Kraków, turned into a massive patriotic manifestation. Mickiewicz’s remains were entombed in the crypt at the Kraków's Wawel Cathedral, a venue which until then was reserved only for Polish kings.
The story of Mickiewicz's body's life after death highlights the crucial role the Polish dead play in their national culture. As Stanisław Rosiek, the author of two volumes of Mickiewicz's necrography (sic!), puts it:
Without the body of Mickiewicz, there would be no Poles. But even if they somehow did manage to survive – without their graves and cemeteries – they surely wouldn't have been, what they have become. The living and the dead share a common fate. The dead know it well.
Słowacki aboard the Mickiewicz
Over three decades later, and already in the resurrected state of Poland, Mickiewicz was joined at Wawel by Juliusz Słowacki. A fellow poet, national bard and also an emigre in France, Słowacki died in Paris of tuberculosis in 1849, and was buried at Montmartre Cemetery.
The efforts to transfer Słowacki’s body to Poland were already advanced in 1909, the 100th anniversary of his birth. The action was suspended though due to refusal from Catholic authorities (Słowacki was known for his anticlerical attitude).
Słowacki did eventually return to Poland. In 1927, owing much to the efforts of Marshal Piłsudski, personally a great admirer of Słowacki’s poetry, his body was exhumed and his ashes taken to Poland.
The remains of Słowacki made it to Warsaw, curiously, travelling onboard a ship called the ‘Mickiewicz’. From there, the coffin made it to Kraków, where the poet was laid beside the ship's namesake at Wawel Cathedral in a massively-attended official state ceremony.
In a memorable speech made by Piłsudski at Słowacki’s coffin, the marshal uttered the now famous words, in which he declared the poet ‘as equal of the kings’, a comparison which has since stayed with the Poles, highlighting the high status of poets in Polish national culture.
He then added words which well characterise the ongoing relationship between Poles and their dead:
There are people and their works so strong and powerful that they overcome death, that they live on and are present among us.
Cultivating the memory of the dead heroes of the nation, be they kings, poets or statesmen, acquired a quasi-official cult status in the interwar Poland. The funerals and reburials became massive ceremonies attended by many thousands of Poles, and contributed to forming the modern national identity as well as the new national pantheon.
Piłsudski: body, heart & brain
But it was to be the fate that befell the mortal remnants of Marshal Piłsudski himself that makes for the most curious and truly sensational story of the Polish dead.
Soon after his death in 1935, doctors took out not only his heart but also his brain. While his body was buried in an all-national ceremony at Wawel in Kraków, his heart travelled in the opposite direction. It was buried in his mother’s grave at Rasos Cemetery in Vilnius, the region from where the marshal’s family originally came from.
As to his brain, residing firmly in a jar of formaldehyde and Karlsbad salts, it was handed over to Professor Maksymylian Rose of the Polish Brain Research Institute. Dr Rose was in charge of a research team intent on identifying the nature of the marshal’s political genius, but unfortunately he died somewhat mysteriously before completing his research. As to the brain, it disappeared in unexplained circumstances during WWII.
The Polish dead today (and tomorrow)
The Polish sepulchral tradition and Poles' relationship with their most famous dead has continued into the 21st century. In 2001, the earth from the symbolical grave of Cyprian Kamil Norwid, another Polish Romantic poet and exile, was brought to Poland over a century after his death.
The earlier post-mortem history of Norwid, who had died in utmost poverty in 1883 in Ivry near Paris and was buried there in an anonymous grave, included an internment and transfer to the Polish necropolis at Montmorency five years later. In 2001, 180 years after the poet’s birth, his ashes were moved to Wawel’s National Poets Crypt, symbolically joining Mickiewicz and Słowacki there.
In 2014, in another act of intervention, the jar containing the heart of Fryderyk Chopin at Warsaw’s Holy Cross Church was subjected to forensic examination. The researchers concluded that the heart was being preserved in very good condition despite the long passage of time.
Following the examination, an envelope containing the findings of the report was placed next to the jar in the niche of the church – a letter of sorts to future generations of researchers. The next examination has been scheduled to take place in another 50 years, that is 2064, which means that the Polish dead have quite a busy future to attend to.