Bodies Revealed … But Should They Be?

Plastination, the process of removing the fluids from a body and replacing them with liquid polymer, was invented by a 64-year-old German medical pathologist named Gunther von Hagens.  Later this month, the Grand Rapids Public Museum is presenting an exhibit of Plastinated bodies called “Bodies Revealed.”
Von Hagens created the process to preserve cadavers for medical schools, but he soon found it more lucrative to exhibit the bodies and charge admission.  To bring in crowds, he skinned, sliced and posed the corpses, billing them as art. Among his displays was a man carrying his own skin over his shoulder; another featured a man kneeling in prayer, his heart literally in his hands.  His show, “Body Worlds,” created using donated cadavers, has attracted more than 26 million people over the past decade and has taken in over $200 million.
I, like many others, was fascinated by the reality of the the Artprize entry entitled Grandfather Monk Luan, a super realistic fiberglass resin sculture of the 87 year old model by artist Sunti Pichetchaiyakul.  It was so lifelike that had he stood up and walked away, those gazing at it might have been momentarily startled, but would not have been surprised.  We were impressed at the detailed artistry involved in creating such a lifelike sculpture.  However, had Grandfather Monk been a plastinated human body instead of a constructed piece of art, most people would have been horrified that a human being had been turned into an Artprize entry.
Along similar lines, if somebody plastinated a deceased spouse and kept him or her in the living room  or at the kitchen table or in the bedroom, I imagine that virtually no one would find this to be acceptable.
Ethical problems abound in the Bodies Revealed exhibition produced by Premier Exhibitions. Premier is paying $5 million per year to rent the bodies and organs it is exhibiting. Premier says that the bodies come from China’s Dalian Medical University.  Their web site explains:The full body specimens are persons who lived in China and died from natural causes. After the bodies were unclaimed at death, pursuant to Chinese law, they were ultimately delivered to a medical school for education and research. Where known, information about the identities, medical histories and causes of death is kept strictly confidential.
In August, 2006, David Barboza, a New York Times reporter, learned that officials at Dalian had no record of Premier’s supplier obtaining the bodies there.  In addition, Premier’s own web site indicates that they do not know the identities of the subjects.
In May, 2008, following a Congressional hearing and a settlement with the State of New York, Premier is now required to disclose “that it is not able to confirm that the bodies and parts being displayed were not, or did not belong to, Chinese prisoners who may have been victims of torture and execution” on its web site.  I could not find this statement on their web site.
However, even if the bodies have been properly obtained, there are other reasons that reducing a human being to an object on display is distasteful.
Biblical tradition teaches that  “You are dust and unto dust you shall return” (Genesis 3:19). Deuteronomy 21:23 indicates that even a criminal who has been executed must be given a burial the same day and not lie unburied overnight, “for that is an affront to God.”  Biblical tradition teaches that a human being is created in the image of God.  Jewish tradition teaches that desecrating a corpse is the equivalent of desecrating an image of God.  Jewish tradition also teaches that benefiting from a corpse is prohibited.  There is of course an exception when the benefit from the desecration directly leads to saving a life.  The Body Worlds and Bodies Revealed exhibitions argue that they will ultimately lead people to take better care of their own bodies.  This might be the case with a display of healthy lungs alongside lungs destroyed by tobacco; a healthy liver alongside a liver destroyed by alcohol abuse; or a healthy heart alongside one clogged with cholesterol plaque.  It is less clear that bodies opened up and posed in various ways serves an educational, rather than a voyeuristic, purpose. It is clear that the organizer and the museum will benefit financially from the use of these human corpses.  The show is a major commercial enterprise, directly benefiting from the human beings who did not give consent to be put on display.  To preserve their bodies for an indefinite period of time for our entertainment rather than lay them to rest in a dignified manner is to turn death into a carnival side show.
I, like most other people, feel a compulsion to look at an accident on the side of the road to catch a glimpse of somebody else’s tragedy.  I understand the nature of the impulse. A glimpse of the unfortunate person killed or injured is an opportunity to celebrate the fact that I am alive and breathing and healthy. I resist that impulse, at least when I am driving.  Although part of me is fascinated by the similarly voyeuristic opportunity to see the internal plastinated anatomy of a real human body, I will not be going, and I urge you to refrain as well.

8 thoughts on “Bodies Revealed … But Should They Be?

  1. Given your views on this, I would be interested to know what you think about mummies being on display at museums and patrons being charged admission to view those.


    • Fair question. I am not generally uncomfortable viewing museum exhibition of mummies, the exception being in the British Museum or the Cairo Museum, surrounded by dozens of mummies. The difference is that mummies were not prepared specifically to be on display. They were prepared with great care to be entombed and sent off to the afterlife with all they would need there. Not my theology, but I can both appreciate it and appreciate that my theology and burial practices are an explicit rejection of ancient Egyptian theology. This is precisely the value of looking at artifacts of an ancients civilization – the chance to learn about where we came from, and what forces have made us and our civilization into what it is.

      The mummies were buried in accordance with their customs, and millennia later have been disinterred so we can see how carefully they were wrapped and prepared. This is clearly different that taking a freshly dead corpse, stripping it of the dignity of any kind of burial ceremony, preserving it with plastic and posing it with a football on a bicycle.

      Mummies are not displayed in a vacuum. They are displayed amidst other remnants of ancient Egypt. They have context. I often know who they were and why the bodies were mummified. The bodies in the Bodies Revealed exhibit have no context. They don’t teach us anything about their Chinese origin, and that is precisely part of the problem with the exhibit. Who were these people? Prisoners? Why did they give their bodies to this exhibitor … If they even did so knowingly?

      Thus the difference between my feelings about mummies and plastinated Chinese corpses.


  2. I agree with you, Rabbi. Frankly I am appalled and saddened. What if this had been done with victims of the Holocaust? I shiver to think it. I will not be going to the museum.


  3. These are soul-less bodies on display for money, and nothing else! They appeal only to the basest level of our humanity, or lack thereof, like the appeal to the audiences in the Colosseum, coming to watch Gladiators kill, it is the thrill of the disgusting, in the disguise of the educational.


  4. Dear Rabbi,
    The details of the following recollection are vague, but it seems as though many years ago at the old museum there was a skeleton of a Native American on display. If I am remembering correctly, complaints from those in the community were finally heard, and the individual was given a proper burial by his people at the Indian Mounds Cemetery.

    I will not be at the museum either.


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