Body Worlds and Respect for the Dead
I remember once reading a Dorothy Sayers mystery where there was a sculptor noted for his lifelike sculptures. It turned out that he wasn't a sculptor at all, but was killing people and preserving their bodies inside of his sculptures. So, you can see, I was already predisposed not to like Gunther von Hagens' "Body Worlds 2" exhibit at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago. Nevertheless, I went--it was a free ticket gotten through my wife's work.
Before I went in, as I was commiserating with another husband who didn't want to see it, a woman who was a personal trainer insisted that we go, and also insisted that we should like it, because it shows the glory of the human body. I tried to argue, first, that I was more interested in the works of the human soul than of the human body, and, second, that those were corpses in the exhibit, which made it problematic for me. She said,"But they gave consent! They donated their bodies." Well, never mind whether one can actually donate one's body as if it is merely an object. Perhaps she was right, and I was merely squeamish.
Upon entry to the exhibit, there were several large banners with quotes from philosophers. I saw one from Nietzsche, one from Epicurus, and one from Seneca. All three had in common the argument that the body is merely a body, and that death is the ceasing of existence. You can apparently buy the posters here. "Death is the release from all pain, and complete cessation," Seneca tells us. Why should an anatomical exhibit have philosophical quotes, and especially these quotes? Perhaps it is to disarm people like me, for whom the "artistic" display of human corpses is distasteful.
In addition to the philosophical quotes, there is a large placard declaring that all the bodies were donated. So, what's my complaint? There are two reasons why I think this exhibit is gruesome, and morally repugnant:
1) The way in which the corpses are displayed. As you go through the exhibit, you can't help thinking that von Hagens and his people are playing with the bodies. They are posed in athletic stances, which could perhaps be construed as educational, but there were several curious poses. A female body was in a yoga pose, leaning back with her skinless breasts pointed upward, topped with obviously fake nipples. It seemed as if they were attempting to be erotic. A male body had been eviscerated in a pattern mimicking a chest of drawers. It's one thing to make use of dissection to teach anatomy; it is another thing to play with the remains of living men and women.
2) I doubt the claims of consent. In fact, I am positively sure that many of the people whose bodies are in the exhibit did not consent. For, as we walked through the exhibit, there was a group of skeletons posed in a family group. Did the child consent? Furthermore, there was an exhibit of embryos in various stages of development: Did they consent? There was a room (which we didn't enter, as we were sick to our stomachs at this point) with fetuses and babies. Did they consent? Clearly not.
Whatever the benefits of anatomical displays, I think Dr. von Hagens' work is seriously morally problematic.