The physical heart of renowned Romantic composer Frédéric Chopin has been exhumed in a secret meeting to verify its preservation. The biological relic has been safeguarded in his home country of Poland per his dying request since 1850. Chopin’s heart has sustained against all odds, having been precariously smuggled, hidden, and even dug up by Nazis. In the recent examination, which has just recently been made public, scientists have confirmed that the musician’s much-debated cause of death was indeed tuberculosis.
“This is a very emotional object for Poles,” said Michal Witt, a geneticist involved in the secret inspection, adding that Chopin is “extremely special for the Polish soul.”
It’s 1849, Paris. Chopin lies in his deathbed, gasping for air. In his final breaths, he whispers a request. For fear of being buried alive, he asks that his body be opened after his death. He also bids that his heart be removed and laid to rest independently from his body, symbolically, in his native land of Poland.
Chopin had suffered a self-imposed exile in France since he fled Warsaw in 1830. A failed uprising had incited brutal repressions from Imperial Russia, and the composer was forced to seek asylum to continue his work.
While the journey for his body ended in the famed Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris, it was only the beginning for his heart. Following his death, the organ was removed and sealed in a jar of liquor believed to be cognac. His sister, Ludwika, then smuggled it to Warsaw, presumably beneath her skirts. For several years, it was hidden in their family home. His heart was eventually enshrined in a pillar in central Warsaw’s Baroque Holy Cross Church.
In World War II, Nazi occupiers removed the heart during the Warsaw Uprising of 1944, with surprising intentions. Unlike the countless relics of art and culture destroyed under their reign, the Nazis took tremendous care to preserve Chopin’s heart. As they slaughtered 200,000 Poles, they protected one of Poland’s greatest treasures. Some of them even claimed it as their own, because of the influence of German composers on his work. However, in a rare effort to show their respect for culture, the Nazis returned it to the Polish church in a ceremony following the attack.
For decades, Chopin experts have persisted with their request that the heart be exhumed once more, so that they can conduct genetic testing to determine the 39-year-old’s true cause of death. But the Polish church and government have refused any kind of invasive testing, in part due to the wishes of a distant living relative of Chopin.
This year, however, they finally agreed to an inspection, in response to a forensic scientist’s alarming assertion that the alcohol could have evaporated after so much time. This would cause the heart to darken and decay.
Thirteen people were sworn to secrecy, including the Archbishop of Warsaw, the culture minister, two scientists, and other officials. On April 14th, they gathered for a midnight inspection in the Holy Cross Church.
“The spirit of this night was very sublime,” said Tadeusz Dobosz, the forensic scientist on the team. They removed Chopin’s heart and took more than 1,000 photos of it. They added hot wax to the jar’s seal to prevent evaporation. Finally, the Archbishop recited prayers over the artifact. It was returned to its place, and the morning churchgoers saw no trace of the secret operation.
For reasons unknown, all details of the event were kept secret by Polish officials for many months. No photos are to be released, with consideration to the ethical issues of displaying human remains.
“We don’t want this to be a media sensation, with photos of the heart in the newspapers,” said Artur Szklener, director of the Fryderyk Chopin Institute in Warsaw. However, he did show photographs of the organ to the Associated Press to prove that the heart has indeed been preserved. AP has described it as “an enlarged white lump submerged in an amber-colored fluid in a crystal jar.” Polish officials have now announced plans for another inspection, to be held 50 years from now.