Gregory G. H. Rihn (milwaukeesfs) wrote,
Gregory G. H. Rihn

Body Worlds I

On Friday, February 22nd, Georgie and I had the day off and took the morning to see the "Body Worlds 1" exhibit at the Milwaukee Public Museum, or, as Georgie put it, "getting in touch with your Inner." We both found the exhibit fascinating and well worth seeing.


My position is that there is nothing sacred about a human body once the animating force has left it. I find the concept of a "sky burial" quite pleasing, and, were it possible over here, would be glad to have my dead self left somewhere to feed the vultures and the kites. However, short of moving to Tibet and becoming a monk, that's not going to happen, so I have opted for a 'direct cremation', which, so far, is the cheapest and tidiest way of disposing of a body. Now, coercing a greiving family that can usually ill afford it to lay out $10,000.00 PLUS for a burial plot, monument, casket, vault, etc.--THAT I find indecent.

I am aware that there are those who will be reading this who find the "Body Worlds" display repugnant on religious grounds. I respect that. There are those who find it inesthetic or just too "gross". I respect that also. However, in my opinion, Dr. Von Hagens, the inventor of the "plastination" process, has been unfairly tarred with the innuendo that some of the cadavers used in his exhibits may be of questionable provenance.

ABC's 20/20 coincidentally did an "expose" on the body exhibit business this same week (which may be viewed at their web site). This is in no way a piece of balanced journalism. Bias is evident in the narrator's continual use of descriptive words such as "grisly" and "ghoulish". Nevertheless, the focus of the piece falls not on Von Hagens, but on his purely commercial competitor, Premier Exhibitions, (which also runs the "RMS Titanic" touring show) and does business as "Bodies--The Exhibition." This company is the one that gets its prepared specimens from China. Von Hagens actually appears in the story, and relates that he had at one time received some cadavers from China himself that showed wounds indicating possible execution: he cremated them and cut all ties with China. There could not be a greater contrast between Von Hagen's clean, well lighted, and ultramodern facility (still referred to by the reporter as "ghoulish") which he obligingly gave a tour of, and the so-called "Denjheng Medical University Plastination Laboratory" which is a dark and dingy rundown warehouse with the furtive air of an auto "chop shop" and from which the reporters were politely but firmly ejected. Pressed as to whether or not condemmned prisoners were used, the chairman of Premier denied it, but admitted that the Chinese specimins were "unclaimed" bodies.

This, to me, is even more reprehensible than using the bodies of condemned felons. This means they are using the bodies of paupers, the unidentified, and the familyless, and that there is almost certainly no informed consent. (Von Hagens has extensive documentation which allows donors to set limits on how the bodies may be used.) Although I am against the death penalty in general, on principle, I don't mind the idea of criminals being used for research. If the person was such a waste of space in life that society deems it's better of with him dead, then I can see the conclusion that they might as well serve a purpose dead when they did none alive. As long as, that is, the process does not become a money mill for the state. (Judge thinks: "if we shoot this guy, it costs us fifty cents for the bullet, and we get back a couple of grand selling him for parts, as opposed to having to pay to feed, clothe and house him for twenty years. . ." No one wants that kind of analysis being made--.)

As for dignity, I did not find anything undignified in the sometimes playful exhibit poses. Most are posed to show the body in normal actions: dance, sports, everyday action, which I agree is more engaging and interesting than just standing at 'attention' or reposing would be. Besides, it's a great old tradition. Want to spend eternity as a chandelier? You could have had your bones interred someplace like the Sedlec Ossuary--


For those who find it distasteful, the detailed review of what we saw is behind the cut--.

Like a lot of traveling shows, we had timed entry tickets, and even so had to wait in line a bit to get in, good news for our financially strapped Museum. Once inside, there was plenty of room to walk around, and a bit of patience allowed us to get a close view of anything. Most of the major pieces are out from the walls and you can walk all the way around, which is very nice for viewing. The first areas are mainly skeletal, featuring the prepared bones that are commonly found in almost every science classroom. However, we soon got to the first of the full cadavers, the "Basketball Player" which showed the intraction of bones and muscles. More remarkable was the "Muscle Man" which shows a largely complete set of major muscles standing APART from the skeleton that had once supported them. I was, frankly croggled by this. I understand how the plastination process generally works, but how they were able to get the specimin to accurately set like that was beyond me.

More marvellous things were to come: besides a number of different muscular dissections, there were also specimins concentrating on the internal organs, the nerves, and even circulation of the blood. These last were the most astonishing. Intellectually, one knows about capillaries and that the blood circulates throughout the body. However, it's hard to visualize our circulatory system other than as the few major veins we see in textbooks. Therefore, it is really astonishing to see a human's network of blood vessels entire, standing on its own. A human shape formed only of a delicate red-tinted Spanish moss is about the only way to describe it.

Both Georgie and I came away feeling that we had experienced something profound and, if not mind-expanding then body-mind interface expanding. it seemed we could feel our inner workings in a new and more intimate way.

The parts that did make me uncomfortable were the diseased parts, educationally contrasted with healthy parts. Even if you didn't know what you are seeing, there is just something WRONG about an arthritic knee joint, a tumorous liver, a sclerotic artery, or a tar-blackened lung that you know instinctively when you see it.

The bit I found mildly amusing were the wall plaques, which quite accurately describe the troubled evolution of anatomical science, but which also tend to trumpet Von Hagens' process as the greatest single step forward in centuries, and the good Doctor as the world's greatest anatomical scientist--even if he does deserve the accolade. I also found the material's reference to the exhibits as "post-mortal bodies" a bit precious.
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