Dead bodies as exhibits: Educational events or Macabre business?

8 years ago

I drove by the billboard and felt my stomach churn again. I can't make myself see this as a good thing. Looming in lurid color is a billboard for entertainment at a local casino -- an exhibit of over a dozen dead bodies with the skin partially removed, preserved in polymers, posed to display various organs. Some bodies still have their faces (or part of them) on. Some do not. They have all been put through a process called "plastination" so that they will "resist decomposition".

Not everyone who donates their body for use after death suspects it will end up at one of the companies creating these exhibits, posed throwing a frisbee or kicking a soccer ball. Yet there they are, mostly male, but also some females, including at least one pregnant woman, a child or two, some fetuses, lots of organs.

Gunter von Hagens, the man who developed the plastination procedure is based in Germany at BODY WORLDS, his company that develops multiple exhibits simultaneously around the world. His own site says the following about how bodies are obtained :

Body Donation for Plastination

All anatomical specimens on display in the BODY WORLDS exhibitions are authentic. They belonged to people who declared during their lifetime that their bodies should be made available after their deaths for the qualification of physicians and the instruction of laypersons. Many donors underscore that by donating their body, they want to be useful to others even after their death. Their selfless donations allow us to gain unique insights into human bodies, which have thus far been reserved for physicians at best. Therefore, we wish to thank the living and deceased body donors.

Note that the donors never said that they'd like their skin peeled off, their bodies dipped in polymers, posed playing cards and set up at an exhibit. Further, The Guardian reports that "In 2004, von Hagens agreed to return seven corpses to China saying he was unable to prove they had not come from executed prisoners. His action followed an investigation in the German magazine der Spiegel."

There is lots of competition for this piece of the entertainment/education/exhibit/sensastionalist pie. Exhibits drawing record crowds globally have been set up in venues as diverse as casinos, museums, and the NYC Pier.

Most company's exhibit sites forbid the copying of pictures without a legal agreement, so click on the sites themselves to see the examples.:
Bodies the Exhibition - see videos of the actual exhibit by clicking here.

Then Amazing Human Body in Australia. Their site speaks about the grisly fact that an exhibit piece was recently stolen

Our Body, the Universe Within that says this about their bodies:

All of the anatomical specimens contained in Our Body: The Universe Within originate from China and have been provided for the exhibit consistent with the laws of China. The anatomical specimens are not owned by the exhibitors, but are provided by a Chinese foundation to promote educational and medical research of the human body. While we do not have the specific identity of each anatomical specimen, they have been donated through medical schools and other research facilities in China to promote education, science and medical research of the human body.

As early as 2006, The New York Times reported that over a dozen "body factories" existed in China to turn out preserved corpses.

Inside a series of unmarked buildings, hundreds of Chinese workers, some seated in assembly line formations, are cleaning, cutting, dissecting, preserving and re-engineering human corpses, preparing them for the international museum exhibition market.

“Pull the cover off; pull it off,” one Chinese manager says as a team of workers begin to lift a blanket from the head of a cadaver stored in a stainless steel container filled with formalin, a chemical preservative. “Let’s see the face; show the face...

Dr. Von Hagen has a factory in China, too -- where, according to the Times, "About 260 workers in Dalian process about 30 bodies a year." He is now branching off to include animals as well.

In a large workshop called the positioning room, about 50 medical school graduates work with the dead: picking fat off the cadavers, placing them in seated or standing positions and forcing the corpses to do lifelike things, such as hold a guitar or assume a ballet position. Dr. von Hagens admits these positions are controversial.

“Even my former manager said, ‘Can you really pose a dead man on a dead horse?’ ’’ Dr. von Hagens said. “But I decided this was real quality.”

A French court judge recently closed down an exhibit called Corps Ouvert, the latest in these exhibitors.

In March, Hugo Chavez, President of Venezuela, did not allow the exhibit into Venezuela.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez’s closure of the “Bodies Revealed” exhibition of dissected human cadavers and subsequent confiscation of the bodies is perhaps the strongest government reaction yet to the worldwide trend for the traveling art and science shows that have been seen by millions.

It is big business. Tickets in Vegas can run about $20. The price is higher in other venues. Hundreds of thousands of people see these exhibits. In Japan, where von Hagens first exhibited in 1995, he claims 3 million viewers.

But this all makes my skin crawl and my heart break. The chilling depersonalization of human body to exhibit troubles me. I don't mind skeletons or cadavers in medical schools. They are needed there to teach. But I do mind this -- this show of enough skin and face and body to still resemble the real people that used to occupy those frames.

Imagine having a son that donated his body to science, and instead your child's body ends up as a traveling exhibit, the skin half sliced away from his body, his organs on view, posed as The Thinker, or posed riding a skateboard. His noble and generous donation simply becomes part of a company's traveling profit scheme.

If someone wants their body processed and on view in such a way, fine. I do not have to like it, but at least there is some moral congruity in the process that I can understand. But to have a body simply "end up" there -- well, that is not OK. And, try as I might, no site that I saw indicated that it always sought express approval for this specific use.

I am not under any illusions that what is left after death is the old person that used to be alive. What is left is the echo of someone, an echo that is meant to dissolve away over time. Not an echo that is made to play forever with sounds given to it by strangers. Not this torturous re-posing of bodies after death.

My faith tells me that the actual person is long gone, and what is left is only the husk, the house in which one used to live.

But "ashes to ashes - dust to dust" makes big sense to me. The body, this echo of life and love needs to return to the earth. Even the remains of medical cadavers are eventually incinerated, cremated. This denial of a respectful exit stuns me, leaves me heartsick. Rumors that some of these bodies were just unclaimed corpses makes me even more sad at what feels to me like misuse.

Is it educational? Most who approve of it would say yes. But do we need human bodies, bodies of real people, to educate? Is our technology so lacking that we cannot produce models that show what these once-alive people now show us?, a site in the Uk that opposes such exhibits, tells us that the exhibits were initially marketed as "art" until the public reacted negatively to that. Then they were re-marketed as "educational".

It must be possible to come up with accurate synthetic bodies -- look at what Hollywood does every day!

Further, what allows us to become so disassociated that we see these bodies as not having a "real" life in their past? The sites of the owning companies refer to them as "specimens". So many of them have parts of faces, staring through the polymer, eyes huge in shrunken skin.

Just because they are soaked in plastic and hard as stone, we see them as statues. Are we desensitized by the violence that surrounds us every day? The gore in movies and video games? What makes us not see these bodies as what used to be real people?

It is the same lever we use to turn off the reality that our hamburger used to have big brown eyes, or that a fur coat used to be an animal that ran free and wild, or that our roast chicken probably never saw daylight and was raised in abject conditions, or that a war casualty of the "enemy" was someone's beloved child/brother/husband/wife.

It troubles me. In seeking to display "humans" it seems entirely inhumane to me. I want these bodies to find rest -- to not be gawked at, made the brunt of jokes, sold as chattel, not to exist as a new profit machine.

And you -- what do you think? Have you seen these exhibits? What did you think?

Deborah, an artist, saw the Bodies Revealedexhibit in Paris and says:

I know the eye fits as a ball in its socket, giving the eyelid its peculiarly curved form, and this knowledge means I can draw an eye. I know that the bones of the hand are a series of knobbed bits stuck end to end, so I can draw a hand. I have pored over enough anatomical illustration to be able to even reproduce them from memory. Yet I was unreservedly shocked by a real human face dissected to expose its eye in its socket, and the sight of genuine fingernails on a hand otherwise stripped down to its bones was unbearable.

Our own Denise would be happy to request that her body is plastinated,

I want to be plastinated or plasticized or whatever the process is called when I die. I do. I’m not kidding. I never joke about death. OK fine, I do joke about death but in this case I’m not joking.

But I suspect that Denise is not in the majority.

Katebits says

A group of my friends are going to see Body Worlds at the Science Museum tonight. I was originally going to go with them until I suddenly and abruptly realized that I am totally creeped out by the pictures of that exhibit. In theory I think it’s a cool idea, but I am almost positive that if I were in a room with a bunch of skinless bodies in weird poses….I would have many resultant nightmares. I feel like a bit of a wuss about Body Worlds, but the fact that I get the heebie-jeebies from the billboard on the 190 tells me I should just stay away.

Laura's reaction was overall a positive one. She also says:

I enjoy controversy. I welcome anything that makes me think. Of course, this exhibit has received negative attention because of the "grotesque" manner in which our innards are displayed, the way some of the bodies were acquired (supposedly all the bodies were from consenting donors, although the copy-cat shows have been accused of using Chinese bodies without permission of the person and their family), and in many religious contexts the body is considered sacred and must be buried after death. Antigone, anyone? People were also upset when two bodies were positioned as if they were having sex, and museum visitors were uncomfortable with a pregnant woman on view, as well as a few fetuses in different stages of development. The pregnant woman would have been fascinating to see, but she was not at the exhibit that I went to. A few of my friends that went to Body Worlds said that she was the only body that made them queasy.

This show was one of the best things I've done this summer. I am finally able to piece together what I've learned from drawings and lecture and I can visualize all of the gushy crap inside of us. The educational value of the show was reason enough to buy a ticket, but the artful presentation made each piece even more beautiful.

Mata H, CE for Religion and Spirituality, can be found blogging at

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