Corpses on Display

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

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