Their bodies, ourselves

body worlds 16 01We've looked at a few mainstream media articles covering the Body Worlds exhibit that has been traveling around the country. In March of last year, Eric Gorski had a great feature in The Denver Post. In January of this year, Jeffrey Weiss ran an insightful Q&A with the exhibit's creator in The Dallas Morning News . And a reader sent along another good article in The Oregonian.

The controversial art exhibit features dead human beings preserved in plastic, flayed open to reveal their inner mechanisms and posed in various positions.

Religion reporter Nancy Haught interviews museum-goers and local ethicists and finds out that some people have deep problems with the exhibit, including sisters Rose Jade and Kyenne Williams:

[Jade's} had some experience with human dissection, she says, and was taught to treat human remains with respect. While she enjoyed eavesdropping on some of the children's comments ("I'm not sure I want this to happen to me after I'm dead," one little girl told her dad. "Well, it's your choice," he replied), the rooms were a little noisy. Some small children didn't seem all that interested. There was nervous laughter from teenagers and some irreverent chitchat. It all seemed a bit disrespectful.

"But I did learn some things," Jade says. So did Williams. She marvels about how small a spleen is, how fragile a body might be, how easy it would be to damage it. "It was educational, but there was something that was not quite right," Williams says.

The two sisters' responses embody the ethical debate that has surrounded Dr. Gunther von Hagens' "Body Worlds" since its premiere in Japan in 1995. Billed as an educational breakthrough, the exhibit has its share of critics. Their ethical objections include the packaging and sale of human bodies, educational claims they see as dubious, a lack of reverence for the dead and a morbid fascination with cadavers.

Haught interviews people of varying religious beliefs about their view of the plastinates, as they are known. One of the exhibitors' arguments is that there are no ethical qualms since people volunteer to have their bodies dissected and displayed:

"People volunteer for all kinds of things," says the Rev. Marilyn Sewell of the First Unitarian Church in downtown Portland. "People volunteer to be prostitutes. People volunteer for genital mutilation, to kill themselves. That doesn't mean society should cooperate with their wishes."

Others compare and contrast the current prohibition on selling organs for transplants with selling tickets to see human remains. Margaret Hogan, who teaches bioethics at the Roman Catholic University of Portland, says that knowledge can be obtained in a more appropriate manner:

Culturally, she says, Americans have been desensitized to death and may be drawn to "Body Worlds" as a sort of entertainment. "But it is a parody on entertainment and on science," she says, "a terrible marriage of both."

The Rev. David L. Wheeler, a Baptist pastor and a former professor of ethics, argues that "Body Worlds" reduces the whole human being to only a physical body:

To display human remains, even with legal permission, is itself an invasion of privacy, he says. "If we were to lay out someone's psychiatric profile publicly, most of us would feel ashamed to look at it." Probing the deepest parts of a person's body is not that different from probing their minds or their souls, he adds. "My discomfort is rooted in the belief that the human being, in his or her entirety, is sacred."

Von Hagens responds that the exhibit is deeply spiritual. The absence of the soul, he says, underlines the soul. And Benjamin Rifkin, who has written about how the human body has been portrayed over time, offers some perspectives:

Rifkin sees a key difference between the Renaissance illustrations, with their spiritual themes, and today's anatomy shows, which come "from a more recent and less pleasant Romantic tradition." He traces the body shows back to the same impulse that spawned the book "Frankenstein": the idea of the horror of dead bodies and cadavers. Since the 1800s, he says, cadavers have been "a sick sideline. To simply look at a cadaver is thrill-seeking . . . a kind of spectacle."

What fascinates me about this exhibit is how it demonstrates a religious sea change among the masses. There was a time when Christians insisted on burial as a testament to the resurrection of the body, which they confessed. It was the belief that death was a temporary separation of body and soul that made cemeteries such sacred places and dead bodies so respected.

And now we have the widespread popularity of exhibits like these, and cremation, and just the general separation of the notions of body, mind and soul. I'd love for some enterprising reporter to tackle what all this means and how the theology of the body has changed in most Christian denominations and in the culture at large. Which is not to take away from some excellent journalism already out there on these topics. Instead I keep seeing a bunch of jokey stories about the funeral business or wacky cremation schemes.

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