Inside the Secret Exhumation of Chopin's Heart

It happened in April in the wee hours of the night
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Nov 17, 2014 10:21 AM CST
Inside the Secret Exhumation of Chopin's Heart
This photo from Nov. 5, 2014, shows a plaque on a pillar where the heart of the 19th-century composer Frederic Chopin is buried in Warsaw, Poland.   (Czarek Sokolowski)

As Frederic Chopin gasped for air on his deathbed in Paris in 1849, he whispered a request: "Remove my heart after I die and entomb it in Poland," the native land he pined for from his self-imposed exile in France. Ever since, the composer's body has rested at Paris' famed Pere Lachaise Cemetery—while his heart has endured a wild journey. It was smuggled into his hometown of Warsaw, probably beneath his sister's skirts, and ultimately enshrined within a pillar in Holy Cross Church. But during World War II, it briefly fell into Nazi hands. Chopin experts have wanted to carry out genetic testing to establish whether the sickly genius died at 39 of tuberculosis, as is generally believed, or of some other illness. The Polish church and government, the custodians of the heart, finally consented this year to a superficial inspection.

Close to midnight on April 14, 13 people sworn to secrecy (including the archbishop of Warsaw, the culture minister, and two scientists) gathered in Holy Cross Church, removed the heart from its resting place, and carried out the inspection—taking more than 1,000 photos before praying over it and returning it. By morning, visitors to the church saw no trace of the exhumation. Polish officials kept all details of the inspection secret for five months before going public about it in September. They refuse to release photos of the heart, though the AP was shown images that prove it's in good shape; it appears as an enlarged white lump submerged in an amber-colored fluid in a crystal jar. Officials have already announced plans for another inspection—50 years from now. (Epilepsy may have fueled his visions.)

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