Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

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Body Worlds

Richard Reeb over at the Remedy writes very thoughtfully (see especially his last paragraph) about a traveling display called "Body Worlds" that exhibits actual plasticized human bodies. When my daughter was in kindergarten, her class attended this exhibit as it debuted in Los Angeles. I had deep reservations about going--to say nothing of taking my kids--but as one of the other mothers is a celebrated doctor and she was also attending in order to explain things to the children, I thought it would be an opportunity not to miss. I was right and Richard is right in his reflections about this exhibit and what it demonstrates about the connectedness between body and soul. I will not say that there was not a part of me that still felt squeamish and found it all a bit "creepy"--but in thinking about rather than in reacting to the thing, there was much to be admired and learned from it. If you have an opportunity to see it at a city near you, do take it. At the same time, if you have children consider for yourself whether or not they could handle seeing it. Mine did well (mostly because of the doctor and their excellent teacher), but I saw some children having a hard time with it.

UPDATE: Along with our very thoughtful commenters, Postmodern Conservative offers a different take on this thing with some very sensible points.

Discussions - 7 Comments

My wife is a resident, and was asked to volunteer at the "ask a doctor a question" booth at this "exhibit". She would not recommend any children under the age of 12 attending this spectacle, unless they are exceptional. Later, I was present when a group of about dozen of her colleague were talking about the spectacle. They were surprisingly reticent about the whole thing, even the secularists. Of course, they have already been exposed to it medical school.

I think the fact that it is being recommended as a way to learn about the "connectedness between body and soul" reveals the way (even the Christians among us - or perhaps especially the Christians?) our culture has sanitized death (and thus life) from our experience. Children should learn these sorts of lessons when aged family members pass, or perhaps members of their parish or friends. Then the "connectedness between body and soul" can be 'in-souled' with the reality of someone they know. We sanitize our dead , putting make-up on them and often not even viewing them, and we wonder why we need to learn the "connectedness between body and soul" through what some call the "art" of this spectacle.

I suppose I would say, that despite the "beauty" and the 'learning opportunity', the squeamishness should have won out. Such "displays" is one reason why I or any of my loved ones will never be "donated to science". We have crossed the proverbial line here, as so many other places...

Yours, too, are thoughtful comments, Christopher. You make several points I take to heart and with which I agree--particularly your discussion of the ways in which we have sanitized death. One of the worst things that happened to me as a child was not being permitted to attend the funeral of a dearly beloved great-grandfather because viewing the body might "upset" me. 21 years later, I can tell you that I am still upset for having not done it. But you are right that the lesson of the connectedness of body and soul that Reeb saw in this exhibit would be too abstract for children to grasp in seeing it--even if they are exceptional. What exceptional children (and even mine--who, like me, are only average) might learn from this exhibit are things of a more ordinary scientific nature. They might also develop an appreciation for the beauty of the human form--not just from the outside but also from the inside. The way the human body works is wondrous and was never more apparent to me than in this exhibit. But then, I did not go to medical school or fare very well in biology either! If I had seen something like this in high school perhaps my interest in the subject would have been drawn out. It certainly is more telling than a text book.

Yes, it is a fascinating exhibit. Where did all of these usually perfectly healthy, plasticized bodies come from? Apparently all of the bodies in this exhibit have been certified to have come from donors and yet there have been serious questions raised as to where the bodies came from in Gunther von Hagens' early works.

I am not squeamish, but I do not like the whole idea of this exhibit. Yes, a body without the life in it is nothing but a piece of meat. This is an exhibit of plasticized meat and that meat is the human body and so, it is interesting to us. However, if we question on here the ethics of exchanging body parts for transplant, how do we not question the ethics of this type of display?

There has been a great dispute about with this within our family. My son, the Navy corpsman, walked out of the exhibit after fifteen minutes, wondering where all of those healthy bodies came from. When my daughter-in-law went, she overheard a group of young women in front of the flayed pregnant body discussing tearful regret over an abortion one of them recently had. Based on that experience, my almost-a-daughter thinks this would a be a good pro-life tool. From that, the argument went back to the ethics of using the body in this way to promote a respect for life.

Yes, I can see allowing children to experience death in a normal way, as experiencing the dead was once a simple aspect of living with other people. However, in the Italian funerary tradition of my husband's family, children might be expected to kiss the corpse of the dearly departed grandfather and that did not always go so well, I have been told. This plastination of the flesh is not exactly normal. But really, even in a culture that sanitizes human death, are children so removed from death in a general way that they do not see the difference between animated flesh and a corpse? Maybe it is that we lived in the country; my children had funerals for small animals that the cats had killed. I remember burying dead mice, birds, rabbits or even just remnant parts and road kill with great ceremony in the back yard. "Poor Johnny's dead!" my four year-old daughter wailed over some bird she had never even met before we rescued it from the cat's mouth earlier that morning. She grieved that the dead thing had lived once. Don't children get to experience that anymore?

Well, even if this exhibit is a vivid lesson about the wonder of the body, does it speak to us about a respect for human beings? As I said, I am not squeamish about the exhibit, but did not see it when it was in my city because of my discomfort over the question as to where the bodies came from. Yet I can't help but thinking that if I went, I would go through the exhibit wondering about the person who had inhabited the body I was looking at. It seems the saddest thing to go through a room of objectified bodies - much worse than going through a graveyard or a morgue.

Again, much of what you say, Kate makes a great deal of sense and I sympathize with your position. There certainly is a danger of simply "objectifying" human bodies. But then you say, " Yes, a body without the life in it is nothing but a piece of meat." And I can't quite agree with that. If that were simply true, there would be no room at all to question what von Hagen has done here. And there would have been no reason for him to try and animate the subjects of his display. A human body is a noble thing in and of itself as the creation of God and an incredibly complex and mysterious organism. There is some touch of the divine in it even without the animation of the soul. That's why we are right to instinctively demand a proper respect for human bodies--that's why we recoil in horror at all bad treatment of human bodies. The question is whether or not this exhibit is a bad treatment of them. I hate to straddle the fence here, but I think I understand both positions.

The question, it seems is less "whether" one should view "Body Worlds" and rather "how" one should view it (if one chooses it). The fact that the spirit of the thing is not apparent to all viewers, probably speaks to some degree of failure on the part of von Hagen to infuse soul as well as plastic into his exhibit. I, for one, take some comfort in the fact that he was unable to do it to the satisfaction of all. Then he would really be a kind of Frankenstein. That he ultimately fails says nothing other than "he is not God" to me. (But then, neither were Michaelangelo or DaVinci.) But it probably also has to do with inexorable prejudices (not all of which are bad or ill-conceived) on the part of some viewers. I concede that the thing could be taken for a ghoulish kind of exploitation--and I indicated that train of thought was my first impulse about it. But Reeb offers what I think is a viable alternative approach and one worthy of consideration if you, like me, are inclined to go the other way. Leaving aside the question of where von Hagen got his donors (since I can't speak to that) and the question of the morality of organ transplantation (I'm too grateful to have too many people I know alive because of them in order to seriously question them on the whole)--I don't see a huge moral difference between this and the use of cadavers in medical school as a teaching aide for future doctors. The vast numbers of the general public will never be present for an autopsy or a study of an actual human cadaver. But no model of a human form ever came so close to demonstrating the many wonders of the human body as this display does. I learned worlds from it and gained new respect for my Creator as a result. That's all I can offer on the subject. If others were saddened or disgusted by it, I would not presume to say they were wrong to feel so, but it was not my experience and I simply wonder whether it need be anyone's.

Julie, I felt I was turning my response into something article length and was resisting the temptation. In referring to the body without life in it as as meat, I might have added that it is meat that we do not eat. An animal's body is just as noble an example of God's Creation, and we do not waver at the consumption of it once the animating life has left it. We raise animals for their meat and kill them for it. In an objective way, and if the material world were all we had, I could suppose there would be no logical reason not to treat human flesh in the same way. I agree with you, and know that the material world is NOT all we have. There is something different about the human body.

I see the morality of the use of the human body in medical research and perhaps this simply a democratization of that type of research and understanding. This is cadaveric examination for the masses. If this exhibit gives the whole world a renewed respect for human life and the wonder of God's creation, then it is a wonderful thing. That does not read like von Hagens' intent, but intent is certainly not all.

If von Hagens truly did use the bodies of Falun Gong devotees bought from China's prison camps and executed for the purpose or even Russian prisoners executed by that nation's legal process to develop his techniques, then doesn't that bring another moral dimension or two to the process if not to this particular donor-based exhibit? The question hangs out there for me and might influence my view of the thing. From an objective point of view, the bodies are still plastic-infused meat. Those people would have died anyway. Maybe it is a good thing that their bodies are put to a good use.

You can see the nobility of the thing and so can my daughter-in-law, whose relationship to her body is pretty objective after a life-time of illness. She has parts missing or damaged. Her body without life in it would be a truly pitiful thing and plasticized would be an example of how tenacious life is and how tenuous. The essence of her is not her body, as she is no pitiful thing.

I think I can wonder and learn about the human body without the exhibit. But thank you for the Reeb piece, which articulates the other side of the fence for me.

I was thinking last night, wondering, if an increased educational aspect of the exhibit would be to allow the public handle the parts, either healthy or diseased. When I home schooled my kids, we dissected goats' eyes and beef hearts and other things. At museums, we handled plastic versions of human internal organs. How more realistic if they were the plasticized real thing. Would you hold them, Julie?

Mr. Poulos' point is a good one. Given the state of modern robotics, there is no reason I know of why making those bodies move would not be the logical next step, assuming a properly plastic plastic could be found for the purpose. Then think of the possibilities! Your wife (or husband) dies young. You can keep her (or him) around forever in robotic form: plasticized real flesh. I saw a preview for a movie about a man who has a mannequin that he treats as a person. This is better, or worse. "Worse" is what I truly think, but at least there is a sentimental logic to the thing.

At least a golem had fire inside. This would be a cold monster, except that it would probably be possible to warm the thing. The voice of your loved one could be synthesized from recordings or videos. Mannerisms could even be programmed in from those same videos. This is horrible then, isn't it? As I said, give me a decent dead body: in a morgue, in a graveyard, even in a bedroom where I must shroud it.

Would you hold them, Julie? No. But neither would I be a surgeon and put my hands into a living person (as glad I am that there are those who would do it). I am not particularly suited to it. But I get your point. It would be rather creepy to have the public just walking in and touching all those things like so many rocks at a geology exhibit. It takes away from a certain kind of privacy or sacredness that the thing seems to demand, I think. Your point is that you think the whole display does this from beginning to end. You may be right. I remain unpersuaded--but this is certainly an interesting conversation. I have never felt so conflicted in an opinion as I do on this one. I think I agree that the potential for monstrosity is inherent in the line of thinking that led to this exhibit and that people are right to suspect it and question it. But I also agree that the potential for great good--of both a scientific and spiritual nature--is inherent in the exhibit. Perhaps it depends entirely on the goods you take with you to view it?

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