It is not without dismay that we have, for some time now, seen the news of exhibits of actual human bodies in varying degrees of decomposition put on display in cities nationwide. The victims are shown without skin and internal organs showing. They are subjected to a plastifying process, which preserves them in such a frozen mutilated state of exposure.
The first appearance of these traveling circuses of human bodies and body parts were the result of the work of German-born Gunther von Hagens, who invented a plastination technique in the late seventies. Since his first exhibition in Tokyo in 1995, nearly 25 million people have seen one of his Body Worlds exhibits.
His exhibits have led others to follow suit. Especially active in the United States are two highly profitable shows: BODIES... The Exhibition and Bodies Revealed.
Where is the Outrage?
We would have hoped that such displays would cause widespread outcry from all Americans and especially religious leaders in our world where so many decry the lack of human dignity and the spread of violence.
Unfortunately, such an outcry has not happened. Instead, since the exhibits are put in an “educational” setting, they have become the objects of student field trips, lectures and “family” workshops.
While some Catholic bishops have condemned the displays, other religious leaders are also quick to jump on the educational bandwagon. It is hard to understand how one diocese even extolled the show as an extraordinary opportunity to provide teaching on “health issues, poverty and justice, and the dignity and sacredness of every human life.”
No Human Dignity
However, there is nothing about this exhibit that promotes the dignity and sacredness of human life.
Consider the very presentation of the victims’ bodies. The integrity of the human body is destroyed and mutilated. They are shown in varying stages of decay. At times the bodies are mere skeletons; others are all covered muscle tissues. Still others show both bones and muscle tissue mixtures. Some have tissues, bones and even skulls cutaway to leave body organs exposed.
However, that is not all that is exposed at the exhibit. There is no dignity in bodies that appear in all their skinless nakedness in what critics have rightly called a pornographic display of male and female organs. This is compounded by the suggestive poses assumed by the victims in some of these exhibits.
If in life, humans were treated as “specimens” as in these exhibits, they would be prosecuted for human trafficking. Yet this trade in the dead is allowed to continue despite grave ethical concerns about the origin and use of the bodies. In fact many bodies come from China whose human rights record is among the worst in the world. Some say the “specimens” come from unclaimed bodies received by the Bureau of Police and “donated” to universities in China for education and research.
The “Bodies Revealed” exhibit promoters present sworn affidavits showing how the bodies were obtained. Another exhibitor, von Hagens, claims his bodies-specimens were donated by people who want their bodies used for “science.”
Media investigators, especially from ABC’s 20/20 show, have raised disturbing questions about these trafficking practices in China. The Atlanta-based Premier Exhibitions behind “Bodies Revealed” faced legislative hearings from several states and Congress centered around human rights concerns. Among other things, the 20/20 show found the company has circumvented laws about human remains by labeling them "plastic models" on shipping documents.
Regardless of how the bodies were obtained, the shows are big business -- generating tens of millions of dollars. The financial success of the original von Hagens exhibit led to the foundation of several for-profit copy-cat exhibitors, like Premier Exhibitions, all over the world who promote similar shows. Typical of such commercialization are the shows’ gifts shops which can feature a whole line of ghoulish items from t-shirts and coffee mugs to human ear-shaped key chains or nose-shaped pencil sharpeners.
A Macabre Specter
Perhaps the worst aspect of the exhibits is their very macabre nature. If seen in a movie theater, the human remains in these exhibits would cause spectators to recoil in horror. In the museum, mutilated humanity is called a source of awe.
These are not anatomy shows or science-class skeletons put on display. Rather, the specimen-victims are made to pose in bizarre and even comic poses that are more fitting for a horror movie than a science display.
Indeed, these human remains are made to be dancers, skateboarders, soccer players or violinists. One is a woman reclining on her side with her womb torn away to reveal an unborn child. Yet another begs the question: What is so scientific about a man on horseback holding his own brain in one hand, the horse's brain in the other?
Here we enter the world of macabre which breaks down the threshold of horror that man naturally feels in the face of such scenes. Such shows are reflective of our society which pushes the envelope of the sensational to the bizarre, gruesome and macabre. And thus, we are desensitized so that nothing shocks human decency anymore. If our society is rent with cruel violence, it is because we promote a culture that takes away its horror.
There is a religious aspect of the shows that is rarely considered. The Catholic teaching on the care of the dead is that they must be buried with every dignity and honor. Proper burial is not only done out of respect for man in the image and likeness of God. To leave a corpse unburied is to profane the body that was once the vessel of the soul.
By properly burying the dead, we affirm our faith in the Resurrection of Our Lord Jesus Christ who triumphed over death. We also share in the hope of the resurrection of our own bodies at the time of the final judgment. Indeed, the burial of the dead is considered a corporal work of mercy out of respect for the dignity of our bodies that will rise again. Likewise, praying for the souls of the dead is a spiritual work of mercy.
When mutilated, flayed and cut-away bodies are turned into specimens to be gawked at in traveling shows, it is an implicit denial of the Resurrection and our own resurrection.
To freeze the body in a corruptible state is a cruel mockery of what will happen at the Final Judgment. Indeed, Saint Paul says: The trumpet will sound and the dead will be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed. This corruptible body must be clothed with incorruptibility, this mortal body with immortality. (1 Cor. 15, 52b-53)