Chopin's Gravest Fear
small, Chopin's Gravest Fear, ‘The Death of Chopin’ by Felix-Joseph Barrios, 1885, oil on canvas, Czartoryski Museum, photo: Grzegorz Kozakiewicz / Forum, full_chopin_reprod_forum_770.jpg
When Chopin, the beloved Polish composer, died in 1849, his body was buried at the Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris. His heart, however, was removed and taken to Warsaw. Why? Was it his wish that a part of himself rest eternally in his lost homeland, or could there have been a more macabre reason?
Fryderyk Chopin was arguably the epitome of a Romantic character. He was simultaneously a restless genius, unable to settle down; a forlorn lover, in a convoluted relationship; a singular creator, capable of working non-stop for days despite his miserable health; and a musical prodigy, who captivated Europe’s musical elite in early adolescence.
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He was also reputed to be a staunch patriot, one who so longed for his lost homeland that his dying wish was that his heart be buried in his beloved Poland. While there is no questioning Chopin’s patriotism, a few of his last words might lead us to believe that there may have been another, much more bizarre reason that the maestro was so eager to part with his insides.
In his final months, Chopin grew weaker and weaker from a progressive illness – thought to be tuberculosis – yet all the while, he fought to remain active as a composer and musician. By the end of September 1849, Chopin was bedridden in his Paris flat, so frail that he could no longer walk. His sister, Ludwika, soon arrived from Warsaw to take care of him. Chopin’s days were clearly numbered.
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Chopin's heart being returned to Warsaw, after it was stolen by the German Army during the Warsaw Uprising in 1945. Photo: FoKa / Forum
Every day, visitors arrived to say their goodbyes to the great artist, but very few were actually permitted to enter his room and speak with him. Chopin died on 17th October 1849. His final words were dramatic:
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 perplexing words, we can conclude that Chopin feared being buried alive. While such a concern might seem completely far-fetched in this era of science, Chopin was not alone in dreading to wake up in his own grave – whether as a living man buried prematurely, or as a supernatural creature of the night.
Medical knowledge was at the time so paltry that the bodies of deceased people tended to be buried as soon as possible, mostly for reasons of hygiene during the cholera pandemics. As a result, more than a few cases of accidental live burial were reported, leading to a whole range of measures being taken in order to prevent the dreadful incident. These included, for example, safety coffins that featured a bell that could be rung from the inside.
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Chopin’s sister Ludwika, responsible for executing his last will and liquidating his flat, acted accordingly with Chopin’s wishes. She asked that his body be opened, and his heart removed, to be placed in a crystal urn filled with cognac. But why did she take the heart to Warsaw and leave it to be installed inside a pillar of the Church of the Holy Cross, where it remains today?
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She was merely executing his will. A few days before his death, Chopin, in a moment of clarity, had told his closest friends:
I know that Paskiewicz [an imposed tsarist ruler of occupied Warsaw – ed.] will not allow my body to be brought to Warsaw, so at least bring my heart over there.
It remains unclear whether Chopin literally wanted his heart to be taken out and transported to Warsaw, or if this was yet another poetic way to express his longing for his fatherland.
We will never know. The widespread, 19th-century fear of being buried alive may have affected Chopin in the end. Perhaps he wanted to spite the tsarist occupier, or maybe he simply longed for a part of himself to rest in his native land.
Monument of Fryderyk Chopin being assembled, Warsaw, 1926, photo: Polona
All in all, Chopin should be content – he wasn’t buried alive, and Poles are proud to boast that his love for Poland transcended even death!
Written by Wojciech Oleksiak, 14th Jul 2014; edited by LD, Jan 2019
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