For most, death is a somber and sedate affair. Bodies generally don’t venture much further than the local mortuary to the cemetery. Some bodies, however, take a much more adventurous path to the hereafter. One good example was the strange story of Elmer McCurdy, a two-bit criminal whose mummified corpse ended up on the set of the 6 Million Dollar Man before finally being laid to rest.
A more famous historical figure had an afterlife that was no less strange. Frederick Chopin, the famous 19th century composer well known for his genius on the piano, died from what was long believed to be tuberculosis in 1849 in Paris. On his death bed, the composer asked that his heart be brought back to his native Poland even as his body rested in Paris.
The task fell to his eldest sister, Ludwika Jedrzejewicz, who had her brother’s heart removed from his chest and placed in a sealed crystal jar filled with cognac. The jar was then encased in an urn of mahogany and oak. Then, a few months later, she smuggled the organ into Poland, passed Russian and Austrian inspectors, by hiding it under her cloak (other versions of the story have her smuggling the urn in under her dress.)
It wasn’t until 1879 that Chopin’s heart was placed in its present resting place—a pillar within the Holy Cross Church in Warsaw. A memorial slab placed on the pillar reads: “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
The pillar became a source of Polish pride, even as the country was occupied by tsarist forces, and it became something of a national monument once Poland declared independence in 1918. When the Nazis invaded Poland in 1939, the country was quickly bowled over by the German juggernaut. The occupiers did their level best to crush the spirit of the Poles. Aware of how much power Chopin and his music had to stir the hearts of the Polish people, the Nazis banned performances of his music and destroyed a statue erected in his honor.
Later, when the city was flattened in the fighting that occurred during the failed Warsaw Uprising, Holy Cross itself was damaged. Fearing that the heart was in danger of being destroyed, a German priest approached his Polish counterparts and asked if they’d let him remove the heart to a safer place. The Polish priests eventually agreed. Eventually, the heart came into the possession of a high-ranking S.S officer named Heinz Reinefarth. A fan of Chopin, he made certain the heart was kept safe at the Nazi headquarters.
When the fighting stopped, Erich von dem Bach Zelewski, the German commander in the region, returned the heart. He attempted to make quite a show of it, commissioning a film crew to document the transfer to the new archbishop of Warsaw. However, the lights set up to illuminate the spectacle malfunctioned, ruining the Nazi’s propaganda attempt.
With the heart back in Polish hands, the priests of Holy Cross were afraid that the Germans would claim the organ once again. They moved the urn to Milanowek, outside Warsaw, to hide it. On October 17, 1945, Chopin’s heart was returned to Holy Cross. The burial was a patriotic spectacle. Crowds gathered to fly white and red flags and throw flowers in the path of the vehicle carrying the relic.
The heart rested for the next several decades, untouched but still a source of pride for the Polish people. In 2014, a team of scientists, historians, and clergy removed the heart to examine it to determine whether the cause of death was tuberculosis or, as some suspect, cystic fibrosis. The jar was resealed with hot wax and re-interred, not to be disturbed for another fifty years. The ultimate result was that it is still believed that Chopin died of tuberculosis complicated by other lung diseases. Any further testing will be up to a new generation of Poles. In the mean time, the pianist’s heart can finally rest peacefully in his native land.
Phillip, Abby. “Inside the secret operation to exhume Frederic Chopin’s heart.” Washingtonpost.com. November 17, 2014. The Washington Post. February 15, 2016. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/arts-and-entertainment/wp/2014/11/17/inside-the-secret-operation-to-exhume-frederic-chopins-heart/
Ross, Alex. “Chopin’s Heart.” Newyorker.com. February 5, 2014. The New Yorker. February 15, 2016. http://www.newyorker.com/culture/culture-desk/chopins-heart
Tsioulcas, Anastasia “Uncovering the Heart of Chopin—Literally.” NPR.org. November 17, 2014. NPR. February 15, 2016. http://www.npr.org/sections/deceptivecadence/2014/11/17/364756853/uncovering-the-heart-of-chopin-literally