Displaying Plastinated Cadavers: Ghoulish Entertainment?

It’s hard to imagine that there might be any shock value left in what one might do to the human body. Where "The Illustrated Man" was once the stuff of science fiction, you can now see illustrated men and women walking down Main Street, or others with exposed body parts pierced from head to toe only hinting at what strange mutilations might lurk beneath their clothes.

But a German doctor has managed to make such disfigurement seem tame. Gunther von Hagens has upped the ante by transforming body parts and entire human bodies, stripped of their skin and cross-sectioned, into plastic and then displaying them in museums around the world. And he’s made lots of money and earned a heap of praise for doing so.

Von Hagens’ latest exhibit, Body Worlds 2, has just closed at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, drawing more than half a million viewers since it opened in March, the third-largest crowds in the museum’s history. But is this art — or education, as its promoters argue — or simply ghoulish entertainment? And what does it say about our regard for the human body?

When von Hagens first started exhibiting his plastinated cadavers a decade ago, the Catholic Church objected, as did some others, but the protests had little effect on the crowds, except, perhaps, to increase them. The tours started out in Germany, Austria and Japan, but soon traveled to North America and have now appeared in Los Angeles, Cleveland, Denver, New York, Houston and other cities, where they are often sponsored by health organizations. Von Hagens claims that he is in the long tradition of anatomists since the Renaissance, whose studies of the human body have advanced both science and art. But the doctor is more P.T. Barnum than Leonardo da Vinci.

The New York Times recently released a video expose of von Hagens’ human body factory in China. Von Hagens employs more than 350 Chinese workers, many of them recent medical school graduates who are unable to find work. These workers skin, dissect, preserve and mold human bodies and body parts into grotesque displays for commercial purposes. The Times claims that von Hagens’ work has earned "vast millions" from his exhibits and souvenir sales. And, although von Hagens has always claimed that he obtained consent from all of the people whose bodies he displays, the Times’ report raises serious questions about whether this is true. The Chinese government has become concerned enough about stories of unclaimed Chinese bodies being used in such exhibits that it has now prohibited the buying, selling or exporting of human bodies.

All civilizations have taken pains to dispose of their dead with dignity. Most religions prescribe the manner in which bodies may be disposed of, and except for extreme circumstances such as war or widespread disease, all cultures reject mass burials or other mass disposals of bodies. Certainly the advance of science has been aided by allowing some bodies to be autopsied for medical study, but even here the purpose is to help the living not to profit from the dead. Yet, Gunther von Hagens and his imitators have managed to ignore the nearly universal abhorrence of mistreatment of the dead and have not only escaped being shunned but have attracted millions to see their morbid handiwork.

It is hard to imagine that a display of dead baby seals, stripped of their skin, cut in cross-sections and suffused with plastic would not draw more protest than the grisly remains of humans exhibited in similar fashion. But the human body is no longer special. We’ve grown accustomed to thinking that we "own" our bodies and can do with them whatever we please. It’s not that big a leap to imagine that we might use others’ bodies as we choose after they’re dead. And how much longer before we start questioning whether some bodies — say, of the terminally ill or incapacitated — might be expropriated for utilitarian purposes a little ahead of schedule?