Eyes, hair, face, image
All must be preserved
Still life displayed forever
No less than she deserved
The body of Eva Peron, first lady of Argentina, was perfectly preserved in its entirety, intended by President Juan Peron to stand on display in a mausoleum as a shrine to his wife and a symbol of his power. The story of Eva’s body is almost as dramatic as the story of her life.
It is my sad duty to inform you that Eva Peron,
spiritual leader of the nation,
entered immortality at 8:25 this evening.
Eva Peron died on July 26, 1952 of uterine cancer. She had always been frail, and had undergone an emergency appendectomy two years earlier. She had been ill for some time, but had not sought treatment. Some reports say that when she was finally examined and her disease diagnosed, she refused to undergo the hysterectomy that was necessary. Whatever the reason, the operation was not carried out. Eva’s last public appearance was at the second inauguration of her husband Juan Peron as President. She weighed only 80 pounds (38 kilograms), and was supported by a wire and plaster frame under her coat – to allow her to remain upright. Seven weeks later, at the age of 33, she was dead.
Oh what a circus, oh what a show
Argentina has gone to town
Over the death of an actress called Eva Peron
The death of the first lady sparked national mourning. Shops closed, restaurants and cinemas ejected their patrons. The streets were filled – people waiting for details about Eva’s illness. Her body was placed in a glass topped coffin in the Ministry of Labor, and the greatest crowd in Argentina’s history gathered to see her. Buenos Aires was emptied of flowers as they were left at the building. Originally there had been three days allotted for viewing of Eva’s body, but this was soon shown to be insufficient. Queues led for 30 blocks in several directions, with the people waiting hours to pay their last respects. Hundreds of people were injured in the press to queue, and eight people died. For the lower classes of Argentina, the death of Eva was a personal tragedy. She had styled herself their saviour, and was considered to be a saint. Petitions were sent to Rome, begging for her canonization, but to no avail. Her body was carried through the streets of Buenos Aires to the Congress building, followed by Juan Peron, escorted by flights from the Argentine Air Force overhead.
When they're ringing your curtain down
Demand to be buried like Eva Peron
Eva had begged Peron not to allow her to be forgotten, and President Peron resolved to have his wife’s body preserved and displayed in a huge mausoleum, as a monument to her life, but also as a bastion of Peronism. Without Eva, Peron’s political future was uncertain. She was the symbol of his power, and the source of much of it. The body was removed from display, and given into the care of Dr. Pedro Ara, a Spanish pathologist who had made a study of the preservation of bodies. For two years he worked on the preservation of her corpse. Her organs were left intact, and she was soaked in a mixture of acetate and nitrate. Over time, all the fluid in her body was replaced with wax, injected into the corpse. A thin film of wax was laid over the body. Ara was obsessive – a perfectionist, and considered Eva’s preservation to be his finest work. He succeeded in his goal magnificently – her body was impervious to decay, amazingly lifelike, and this despite the delay between her death and the beginning of the preserving process. At some stage, two or three wax copies of the body were made – helping to create further confusion in the events that followed.
Money was raised to build a tomb, a monument to Evita.
Only the pedestal was completed
and Evita's body disappeared for seventeen years.
In 1955, Peron’s regime was overthrown. His hold over the people had diminished dramatically with Eva’s death, and with the rise of a new military power Peron was forced to flee the country. Evita’s body was left behind. The planned mausoleum had not been finished. The Argentine army seized the body from its display at the Ministry of Labor, as such a powerful relic of Peronism could not be allowed to remain. The new regime faced a dilemma. Wherever the body was buried would immediately become a shrine to Peronism, the government they had overthrown. However, to destroy the body would bring about the immediate wrath of the people – political suicide. A fingertip and part of Eva’s left ear were removed – for fingerprinting, to check that it was the real body, or as relics. The body was given into the care of Colonel Moori Koenig of the Intelligence service, and moved from hiding place to hiding place in the attempt to keep it from becoming a symbol of the old regime.
The body rested in a parked truck, an attic, on various military bases – constantly moved for fear of discovery. There is a legend that wherever the body rested, burning candles and flowers would be mysteriously placed. Her keeper became obsessed with her, dreaming of keeping her for himself. Soldiers involved in moving the body were killed in “accidents”. The main source of information about this period in the body’s history is Santa Evita, a novel by Tomas Eloy Martinez. He records that a Major Arancibia murdered his wife when she discovered that he was spending hours alone with the body. It is difficult to find any confirmation of this, and as Martinez’ book has slightly fictional elements, I would hesitate to consider this a fact without some serious research. Another story has the body stored in Arancibia’s attic, and records that he shot his pregnant wife when she entered the room, thinking that Peronists had come to recover Eva.
Eventually, the body was sent to Rome, given over to the Vatican. It was buried in a grave in Milan, under the name “Maria Maggi”. Eva found rest in a foreign country for 15 years.
The choice was yours and no-one else's
You can cry for a body in despair
In 1971, the grave marked Maria Maggi was opened. Peronism had taken hold in Argentina, and the people clamoured for the return of the body of Evita. The Argentine government needed to make overtures to Peron, still exiled in Madrid with his third wife, Isabella. It was considered expedient to return Eva’s body to her husband, and an exhumation was ordered. The Italian gravediggers fled when they saw Eva’s body – still in its glass topped coffin. They could not believe that such a lifelike corpse could actually be dead, and believed that a miracle had taken place. Her body was returned to Peron in Madrid – who wept when he saw her.
Peron and his wife Isabella returned to Argentina in 1973, and Peron reclaimed the presidency. He traded heavily on the image of Evita, and Isabella became vice-president. He ruled for only a short time, and after his death in 1974, Isabella made arrangements for Eva’s body to be brought from Madrid back to Argentina.
Eva’s body was finally returned to her family, and laid to rest in the Duarte vault in Recoleta Cemetery, Buenos Aires. Her corpse was considered to be the best preserved in the world. She rests beneath layers of steel and 7 metres of concrete – presumably, this will be her last resting place.
And if ever I go too far
It's because of the things you are
Since the disappearance of Eva’s body, rumours have been rife as to what precisely was done to her. Some are confirmable: the body’s nose was broken, the fingertip and ear removed. Her sister stated that when the body was returned to the family tar was found on her feet. Peron’s third wife, Isabella, used to comb Eva’s hair for the brief time when the body remained in Madrid with Peron. Colonel Moori Koenig was known to display the body to his friends, and to handle it. The darker rumours are usually only hinted at, and are not verifiable. When asked further questions about the condition of Eva’s body, her sister simply said; “I will say no more. There are some things that should not be spoken of”. For her embalmer and her kidnappers she became the centre of their lives. Throughout her short life, Eva inspired obsession in many. That ability, it would seem, remained with her even in death.
All italicised quotes are taken from the musical "Evita" by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice.
Santa Evita by Tomas Eloy Martinez, Helen Lane (Translator)