From the October, 2008 issue of Touchstone

Working Stiffs by Christoph Reiners

Working Stiffs

Christoph Reiners on the Bodily Disrespect Displayed in Our Museums

It was in 2006 that my 13-year-old son won the regional science fair and thus qualified for the National Science Fair. The participants were honored by the British Columbia Innovation Council, but not by arranging a meeting with some of its best scientists or by opening doors to research institutions that normally remain closed.

The council planned for them to see an exhibit of human cadavers at the local science center, which up to this point had catered only to children. It was then that I became aware of Body Worlds, Bodies the Exhibition, and similar exhibits.

These travelling exhibitions display approximately 20 plasticized, post-mortem human beings and 200 human body parts. The process of preservation, invented in 1977 by the German anatomist Günther von Hagens, who gave it the name “plastination,” substitutes polymers for bodily fluids, which makes the “exhibits” pliable. (Only the cell structure of younger persons is suitable for plastination.)

Premier Exhibitions, which runs Bodies the Exhibition, admits openly that the human bodies it uses are those of unclaimed persons, all of which are “owned” by the Chinese government and leased to the company.

Body Worlds von Hagens claims that all the bodies in his traveling exhibitions are those of donors, yet questions remain, not least about the origins of bodies obtained before the donor program was established. Most of his “production” is also in China, a country with more than 90 percent of the world’s executions.

National Public Radio has reported that the connection between donor forms and bodies can no longer be established. I wonder whether accusations of having obtained bodies of executed political prisoners continue to add to the mystique. For visitors, the exhibition has the draw of the forbidden fruit, of breaking the last taboo. I find it odd that lead-tainted children’s toys create massive public concern, but not human cadavers imported from the same country.

Pornography As Science

The more I learned, the more troubled I became. Some of us may accept the exhibition of our brother, sister, son, or daughter by appealing to the “immortality of the soul.” And yet, we cannot reduce the sacredness of our created existence to the “soul.” The Creed affirms “the resurrection of the body”; St. Paul tells us that our bodies are the temple of the Holy Spirit.

Making a body, even a donated one, available for entertainment for the paying masses (25 million people worldwide have visited Body Worlds alone) cheapens the value of the dead. Remember, we are not speaking of research or medical school, but of human cadavers arranged in grotesque poses for the paying public. (In our death-denying culture, many would probably object to sending children on a field trip to the local morgue or funeral home, where the dead are treated with respect.)

These exhibits turn the likeness of God into a commodity. Marketers of these shows claim that they provide great educational benefits—the moral fig leaf is that the diseased organs displayed discourage smoking, and so forth—but actual human bodies are not necessary to explain the function, health, and disease of what is fearfully and wonderfully made.

As our fellow human beings are turned into objects, I fear that we all become objects, losing any sense of the sacred as a dimension of our humanity. Body Worlds and its peers are a kind of pornography masquerading as science.

Not Just a Body

In 1993, warlords in Somalia dragged the body of an American Marine behind a jeep through the streets of Mogadishu. We were outraged. “But why?” we should ask by the logic of these exhibits. After all, the Marine was already dead. What was dragged through the streets was “just a body.”

It is true that the human anatomy can be observed well when a person’s skin is pulled back. But should it be, just because it can? And should we go to see these exhibits just because we can? Even if the people whose bodies are on display did give their permission, does that justify the objectification of human beings?

We may say that a body on display is “only a body.” But in the mystery of life we never encounter a human being without his body. When we turn human bodies into objects, we justify the objectification of human beings, and thus exploitation of any kind. When we objectify the dead, we make it easier to objectify the living.

What is taught here is a utilitarian ethic that has extended the model of our consumer society to the personal. Moral discernment is guided only by “usefulness,” and here usefulness is defined, self-servingly, as providing entertainment value.

I fear that the way bodies are treated in these exhibitions teaches everyone, adults as well as children, that the body is only a machine, that when it’s over it’s over, and that therefore the beliefs we all hold (as different as they may be) are all relative. If our beliefs are all relative, we will not only show too little respect for the dead, but also too little respect for the living. Such seems the logical outcome (at least in the long run) of Body Worlds, Bodies the Exhibition, and similar exhibits.

Part of this article is adapted from an article published in The Abbotsford [British Columbia] News.

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