Archive for January, 2009

Corpses on Display

Posted in Random Weirdness, Rotten on January 12, 2009 by davehurwitz

My wife and I are members of the San Diego Natural History Museum, and I get the occasional bit of e-mail from them detailing their current programs.  Tucked into a corner of the one I received today was this unfortunately phrased item:

Volunteer for BODY WORLDS.
Help reveal the wondrous functions of the human body to curious museum goers.

Body Worlds

Body Worlds

For those of you who are unaware of the nature of this exhibition, Body Worlds features plasticized human cadavers, many in artful poses, all of them partially dissected to reveal various aspects of human anatomy.  All the bodies in Body Worlds were voluntarily donated by people who knew exactly what their remains were in for.  While I assume the Natural History Museum needs extra docents for the exhibition, it sounds a bit like they’re begging for fresh cadavers.  Clearly, they need a better editor.

I have not seen Body Worlds, unless you count the brief scene in Casino Royale where Daniel Craig slips an extra dead guy into the mix.  I have, however, seen a competing exhibit simply titled Bodies.  (It really should have an exclamation point.  It should also be a musical.)  Title aside, the major difference between Bodies and Body Worlds is that the cadavers displayed by Bodies were obtained from the Chinese Bureau of Police.  While it is tempting to conclude that the corpses belong to the unclaimed and the indigent, they may very well be executed prisoners.  In either case, these are clearly not volunteers.



Though aware of the exhibition’s dubious reputation, when Bodies came to San Diego I went.  I told myself that I needed to do it to inspire and improve my writing.  In reality, I just wanted to see some dead people.  I saw them, and I found them surprisingly uninteresting.  Perhaps it was the absence of stink and splatter, but the corpses seemed more like cheap plastic imitations than real dead matter.  I’ve seen CSI reruns that offer up more cringes and shudders.  By far the most engrossing item was a head that had been dissolved except for the circulatory system.  The face appeared in an impressionist cloud of capillaries.  I found it quite beautiful.  I did have trouble looking at a row of preserved fetuses, mostly because I could not help wondering how they made their way from the womb to the display case.

We like to assume that bodies donated to medical schools in the United States are treated with more dignity, but is this really the case?  Not always, according to Mary Roach, author of Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers.  When we think of bodies donated to science, we picture clear-eyed medical students studying our remains with sober expressions, but donated bodies have many other uses.  Roach documents cadavers used for surgical practice (Would you want a virgin surgical resident practicing on live people?), safety testing (Does this batter’s helmet really prevent skull fractures if hit by a fastball?  There’s only one way to find out.), and forensic research (So that’s what it looks like when you attack someone with a rotary sander.)  All in all, I think I’d rather donate my body to Art.

While the preservation process used in both Bodies and Body Worlds is relatively new, the desire to gawk at dead people is as old as time.  As for myself, I’ve done my gawking, and I feel no desire to do any more.

Dave Hurwitz


Thor and Odin worshipers gain graveyard in Denmark

Posted in Rotten with tags , , on January 6, 2009 by davehurwitz


The religious order, Forn Siðr (meaning Old Custom), was granted permission to have an exclusively pagan burial ground. The town of (a town named after Odin) gave the green light to a heathen cemetery at the Assistens Cemetery by the end of the year. This will be the first time in a thousand years that followers of Odin, Thor, or Loki will have a graveyard all their own.

Forn Siðr is the largest member of the Ásatrú alliance (an organization of 35 groups that promotes the old Norse gods). Forn Siðr was formed in 1997 and gained official approval by the Danish government in 2003. It currently has over 600 members.

“When you establish a religious community, you should also be able to serve your members from cradle to grave, so getting a cemetery is a big breakthrough,” said Søren Fisker, Forn Siðr’s vice president and cemetery liaison.

In the past, members had their ashes scattered at sea or be buried in a churchyard. This didn’t sit well with many Asatruar. “Many Asatruar define themselves precisely by being different from the majority of Christians,” said Fisker.

René Dybdal Pedersen of Aarhus University points to the fact that Muslims had previously gained their own cemetery, paving the way for Forn Siðr.

Norse burial mound

Norse burial mound

Forn Sidr has already chosen a row of large stones that will form the outline of an 18 meter-long Viking ship, thus forming the boundary of the shared Heathen cemetery. Fisker hopes that other municipalities that operate cemeteries in larger towns will also be sympathetic to establishing cemeteries for Asatruar.

The Center for Cemeteries, which oversees the five cemeteries in the municipality of Copenhagen, would be positively disposed right away. “They could certainly rent an area. We have a very broad definition of what is permissible. But of course we would say no if they suddenly wanted to raise stones that were 15 meters high,” said Tom Olsen, the daily director of cemeteries.

The report is silent about how the followers of Odin will be handled. Will there be giant funeral pyres or perhaps a lake to send the body off via ship? Will there be burial mounds, complete with favorite domestic animals as grave companions?

Norse funeral boat

Norse funeral boat

Chris Kalidor