Saturday, January 20, 2007

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.

4 comments:

Vanessa said...

I'm amazed at how unheard the voice of descent is on this subject. I'm in complete agreement, I predict we that there will be a scandal regarding the consent of the bodies. However, it's clearly marketed in a sensational way, and the poses only emulate the pitch. It's so Roman empire...

Katie said...

I recently visited the exhibit and I thought it was fantastic. Maybe it's because I'm a phyisican assistant and had spent many hours in the gross anatomy lab myself but I think it went beyond that. It was such a beautiful way to see the human body! We are an amazing species and to appreciate the musculature and nerves and blood vessels so artisticly displayed is truly something! To think all of that has to work together to make us who we are. Now like I had said because I deal with life and death everyday of my career and many times have seen death and held a life in my hands maybe I saw body worlds in a different light. I thought it was a fantastic way for non health care professionals to learn about the body and see what our bad habits can lead to. I really enjoyed watching people interact there each pointing and listening intently. I feel it is a good way to portray death. Death is something people fear and are uncertain about. I've been asked numerous times when giving a patient news they have a fatal diagnosis..what will it be like? Will I know when it will happen? Is it like going to sleep? Will it hurt? I dont want to die. People are scared of death, but to portray these bodies not in a morgue like setting or in zombie like poses, but poses that portray vibrancy, intensity, vulnerability (two lovers, a gymnast,a man skiing ...) these are the things that make us human. I felt to be confronted with death this way can take some of the fear out of a "dead body".
As for the quotes I felt they were beautiful. A way to keep the human soul involved in a place where souls have passed. It brought back the reality that these were at one time living people with family and jobs, dreams and hopes. And it was better than just having bare walls and a bunch of specimans (if you wanted just that visit your nearest coroners office or medical school). ITS ART! He is trying to portray the beauty of the human species. Beyond our skin we all look the same we are all made of the same things inside.
Now as for consent...obviously a baby can't give consent but in the medical world someone can give consent for it because it's considered a minor, just as it wold be if it were living.
Say what you will about ethics. I hardly doubt Dr Hagen is a grave robber or body snatcher. But just like any other issue in health care (stem cells, abortion..) someone has to start something otherwise its not fun. At this display there was a application and consent form from one the the donors of their bodies (I know...yea they could have completely made it up..but if your that much of a sceptic I feel sorry that your soooooo jaded). There was a space on the application that allowed the donor to give a reason they wanted to donate to body worlds. This man said that all his life that he worked so hard to keep in good shape but saw that as he aged his body became something he hated, when he died he had wanted to have his body burned because he thought there was no use for a dead body. Then he visited this exhibit and was so inspired by the beauty and the enjoyment that people got from this experienced that he decided to donate. I thought it was a wonderful thing that he could appreciate himself again and feel good about himself.
Honestly I guess its going to be one of those things love it or hate it..Some will be scared/squeamish, some will be in awe!...
I thank these people who have given their bodies so we can learn. I am greatful for the gift they have given. Without people like these and so many other people who donate their bodies to science (or in this case scientific art) we wouldnt know as much as we do about the human body. And believe me be glad the doctors, nurses, physician assistants, and any other health care professional had people like these generous souls to learn from...

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Aaron Ginsburg said...

Exhibits like this reduce humans to merchandise... bodies on coffee tables are probably in the future. If they are 90% plastic, why not go 100%. Real bodies are used because they sell tickets. Read more at stopbodyworlds