“I was looking at a collection of specimens embedded in plastic. It was the most advanced preservation technique then, where the specimens rested deep inside a transparent plastic block. I wondered why the plastic was poured and then cured around the specimens rather than pushed into the cells, which would stabilize the specimens from within and literally allow you to grasp it.” – Gunther von Hagens
What if our bodies didn’t decompose after death? Our world would be completely different; picture storage facilities instead of graveyards. Imagine walking into a skyscraper, taking the elevator to one of the top floors, getting off and being ushered into a room where all of your family was kept. How would they be situated? Would they lie in beds or would they be posed, your father reading the daily paper and your mother putting on her lipstick? If our bodies didn’t change after death, perhaps the urge to make them seem alive would be too much. It’s a creepy thought. They’re something unnerving about taking Grandma and manipulating her arms like a mannequin, stretching them out so that she can eternally offer her great-grandkids a hug.
In plastination, bodies are forever stuck in time. Decomposition is stopped dead in its tracks. When a body is “plastinated,” the bacteria that are needed for decomposition to run its course can’t survive – the water in the body has been replaced by liquid polymers. The body is first soaked in acetone and later placed in a vacuum, where the acetone is sucked out and replaced by those polymers that keep it from decomposing. On the BodyWorlds website, it says that it takes a few weeks to plastinate a full human body. The inventor of plastination is a man named Gunther von Hagens, who has been exhibiting these bodies around the world since 1995. His BodyWorlds exhibition is bizarre and confounding, controversial yet popular, condemned by the Catholic Church and still intriguing enough to have been visited by over 26 million people.
On Tuesday of last week, I’m happy to say that my friend Paula and I became two of those 26 million.
It’s hard to put into words what exactly motivates one to go to the BodyWorlds exhibit. Part of it is morbid curiosity. If the skinless corpses on display were just standing there to be viewed, I honestly don’t think I would’ve gone. I was drawn to BodyWorlds largely because of von Hagens’ playfulness with the whole thing. I’d seen pictures of it on the Internet, of a plastinated corpse kicking a soccer ball and another one fencing. I first learned about plastination accidentally, stumbling upon it while researching preservation techniques used in communist countries (who tend to preserve the bodies of their iconic leaders). Von Hagens’ BodyWorlds has fascinated me since, and probably not for the right reasons. For an exhibit that advertises its purpose as being educational, I’m not sure that I was drawn to it because I thought I’d learn something.
And I’m thankful for that, because I don’t really think that I did learn anything.
The presentation I saw – called “The Cycle of Life” – begins with disfigured fetuses and ends with a room that contains two plastinated bodies having sex on a stool. So the bookends are pretty colorful. The basic idea is that our bodies age and change over time and that our choices and our attitudes largely affect how those changes will go. There’s a lot of encouragement not to smoke, including one plastinated corpse where the back is removed to show the blackened lungs. Exercise and healthy eating are also advocated, and the majority of the bodies are posed doing something athletic (like jumping over a beam or running with a football). In truth, “The Cycle of Life” is much more of a public service announcement than it is a scientifically enlightening experience. Don’t smoke, exercise, eat healthy, enjoy the spiritual connection of sex so you won’t be disappointed when you’re old and undressing before copulation consists of stripping off your Depends and hearing aids. Things like that. It isn’t at all morbid, and if anything displays a sunny attitude towards life. Live it to the fullest.
It makes a strong case. The plastinated corpses seem to be having so much fun! One body plays a saxophone, its back bent like Stan Getz at the Blue Note. Another display has a male and female posed like Leo and Kate in Titanic; he’s standing behind her while she spreads her arms out and feels the mighty ocean breeze against her face. Maybe it was supposed to be Jack and Rose post-iceberg. The final room is the strangest, where the plastinated bodies actually have hardcore plastinated sex. I would’ve liked them to have used protection, but then again, they’re dead.
The ethics are easy to question, but the bodies have been donated by people from all over the world (there was once a controversy that some of the bodies von Hagens used belonged to missing Chinese workers – von Hagens denied this and even went so far as to destroy the bodies in question should there be any doubt). The BodyWorlds website even has a form where you – yes you – can donate your own body to be plastinated. So it isn’t like the actual owner’s of the bodies had a problem with what they’d be turned into. I suppose running with a football forever is a nicer sounding option than cremation.
Perhaps the most important questions BodyWorlds poses is an essential one for the time we live in – are our bodies really THAT sacred after death? Today’s world is one of science and logic, of information and of reading. We’re constantly being taught. It’s far different from the older, traditional thinking, where religion and observation formed perception. In his essay Theology of the Body, President of the Catholic University of America, John Garvey, states that the body is sacred because it represents the otherness inherent in our society. Bodies represent the people we meet, the forms that are not ourselves. He says, “It is a mark of all human societies that we treat the bodies of the dead with care, and how we regard them says much about our feeling for the living–our sense of the value we give those we meet and interact with.” Given that, have we reached a point where death is just death? Where a body is just full of silence and cells, signifying nothing? The question about BodyWorlds shouldn’t be whether or not it desecrates the dead – of course it does. The question should be if that matters anymore.
For Gunther von Hagens, his perception of death might’ve formed when he was six years old. As a child, he had a rare bleeding disorder and almost died. The six year old von Hagens spent a lot of time in the hospital, where his thoughts were more than likely consumed with death. I think BodyWorlds is the end result of that. Von Hagens plays with the dead like a child might. I can imagine him in that hospital, his own body small and weak, wishing that somehow he could stay on this Earth forever.