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Hallowed plastic meat

Would you be caught dead at the Body Worlds exhibit?

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A neighbor and I were discussing the upcoming Body Worlds exhibit at Discovery Place, which starts in June. Body Worlds has been shown around the world in three different displays, presenting posed human bodies and body parts that have been "plastinated," or injected with resins and polymers. My neighbor was torn about the exhibit, and wondered, "Is it going to be educational or just gross?"

I said, "Maybe both. Sometimes, 'educational' and 'gross' go together -- remember dissecting frogs in biology class, or those drivers ed car crash movies?" We both laughed, but as we talked I realized I'm torn about Body Worlds, too.

Reactions from millions of Body Worlds viewers have varied widely, from elated fascination to moral disgust, so it looks like, at the very least, it'll be interesting. But I'm of two minds about it, and I imagine others are, too. I find the process of turning human flesh into mostly-plastic an amazing feat, and there's doubtless a great potential for educating the public about the inner workings of the body in a way that can't be achieved by old-fashioned plastic models. Still, a couple of things about Body Worlds leave me uneasy.

One is Dr. Gunther Von Hagens, the man behind Body Worlds. He's a laudable technical innovator, but he's also the guy who, after inventing plastination, immediately saw an opportunity to make a fortune by exhibiting flayed corpses. There's something ghoulish about Von Hagens, a relentless self-promoter who, from all indications, is not a man blessed with humility. He defends his work by claiming he's "democratizing anatomy," i.e., letting the public into the medical world. In 2002, as part of his efforts to bring anatomy to the people, who have so long been deprived of the sight of cut-up corpses, he performed a public autopsy in London in front of a crowd that had paid $19 a head for admission. After the autopsy, admissions to London's Body Worlds exhibit, which had plateaued, increased dramatically. Is it just me, or are Von Hagens' actions here just a wee bit repulsive?

My other qualm is simple, and it's not one I expect everyone to share, but here it is: I find it unsettling that when you look at a plastinated corpse, no matter how artistically it's posed, with its flayed muscles flying around it like so many slices of honey-baked ham -- and no matter how unfamiliar the body looks without skin -- that used to be somebody. Someone real, somebody's son or daughter. The plastinated person may have given prior consent, and the exhibit might be in a cool museum, but the fact remains, you're paying to look at a dead human body. As I said, I find that unsettling -- not in the sense of finding it creepy, but because of what seems, to me, a disrespect for the basic humanity of whoever that ball-kicking, or skateboarding, mostly plastic, um, thing, once was.

For many people, none of these issues will matter. For some, science rules the roost, and thoughts of the exhibits' past lives will simply be put on hold. I mean, respect and propriety are so last century. For others, it'll be a great show, nothing more and nothing less.

I can even see someone spotting a great business opportunity and really democratizing anatomy by offering plastination "services" for your loved ones. Imagine the ads: "We didn't want to say goodbye to Grandpa when he died -- so there he is, out on the porch in his favorite rocking chair. He's hard as a rock and never moves, but that's him, all right -- thanks to Plasti-live Alternative Funerals."

In the end, individual reaction to Body Worlds gets down to your deepest feelings about the body and humanity. If the body is the temple of humans' spirits, or souls, then taking a few hundred of those temples, skinning them, shooting them up with polymers and putting them on display for profit is, to put it mildly, disturbing, not to say morally grotesque.

On the other hand, if the spirit has left these bodies, haven't they already lost the essential thing that made them fully human, their souls? Isn't it even a kind of tribute to those people that their former bodies can now help educate others?

But let's say you don't believe in souls -- in fact, you think humans are basically just machines made of meat -- the Body Worlds exhibit can still stir serious qualms: no matter who these people once were, shouldn't we have enough respect for their former state, our common humanity, to not turn them into a spectacle? Or does the corpses' former selves' prior consent nullify those considerations? I'm no philosopher, and I don't know. What do you think?

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