CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that the Body Worlds Vital exhibit of human corpses will also be showing in Palmer at the Alaska State Fair in August. The exhibit at the Alaska State Fair (Our Body: Live Healthy) does include a highly controversial display of human corpses but it is produced by Studio 2 Promotions and is not affiliated in with Body Worlds. We regret the error.
By JOEL DAVIDSON
A controversial exhibit of real human corpses will be on display in Alaska this fall. “Body Worlds Vital,” which shows at the Anchorage Museum beginning in September, is one of several shows developed by Gunther von Hagens, a German anatomist who has built a multi-million dollar industry by displaying human corpses in a mix of entertainment and education settings.
Since 1995, the traveling exhibits have generated public debate and often condemnation from civic and religious leaders across Europe and North America who have questioned the ethics of using human remains for what some consider to be degrading purposes.
Von Hagens developed plastination, a technique which removes water from human corpses and preserves them with silicon rubber or epoxy resin. The results are preserved, odorless bodies which are then manipulated into different poses and displayed in museums and art galleries across the world.
More than 34 million people have viewed Body Worlds exhibits, some of which include a cross-sectioned corpse of an expectant mother revealing her dead unborn child and a man peeled from his skin, positioned to carry it like a raincoat.
One of the more controversial poses, part of a Body World exhibit which is not scheduled to run in Alaska, includes two cadavers positioned as though they were engaged in sexual intercourse.
In a 2009 Reuters interview about the sexually positioned bodies, part of a show that ran in Zurich and Berlin, von Hagens said the display of bodies can vary from country to country to reflect local sensibilities.
“Switzerland is the first country that already said from the outset that we could show whatever we wanted,” von Hagens told Reuters.
He added that Body Worlds has also “discussed whether it is proper to show homosexuality and in what way. This is a very delicate subject,” he told Reuters.
The upcoming show in Anchorage represents the most recent chapter of the Body Worlds enterprise. According to Bodyworlds.com the exhibit is designed to “show visitors the essentials for human health and wellness.”
The website explains that the exhibit shows whole bodies, individual organs and transparent body slices and will provide information about diseases and the effects of tobacco use.
Sarah Henning, public relations coordinator for the Anchorage Museum, told the Catholic Anchor that the museum hopes the exhibit will inspire people to “live more healthy lives.”
To that end, she noted that Providence Alaska Medical Center is helping to sponsor the show in Anchorage.
In an interview with the Catholic Anchor, Anchorage Museum Director James Henry said the museum decided to show the exhibit as an artistic and educational opportunity for the public, including school groups. The decision was made after conducting several polls about which exhibits people most wanted to see.
“By far, by a three-to-one margin, the number one show that people wanted us to pursue was Body Worlds,” Henry said.
‘NOT FOR EVERYONE’
The Anchorage Museum recommends the exhibit for school field trips for students junior high age and older. Henry said younger children could “probably handle it as long as they were with their parents and their parents kind of prepped them before hand.”
But Henry noted that the exhibit is not for everyone.
“There may be people who don’t like the idea of seeing a human body on display,” he said. “People have to make an individual choice if this is something that makes them uncomfortable or may not be compatible with their beliefs.”
Henry noted that he, too, was “a little hesitant” the first time he saw the Body Worlds exhibit in San Diego when he was researching the idea of bringing the show to Alaska.
“I was kind of nervous walking into the exhibit,” he admitted. “When you actually go into the show, after the first few minutes you’re in there, I think the discomfort of seeing bodies kind of goes away and you become fascinated with the anatomy. You don’t think about the fact that they are dead bodies — that they are deceased individuals.”
Museum Public Relations Coordinator Henning said the bodies on show in Anchorage will be displayed “in mostly athletic poses” and “very respectfully.”
“As an educational institute we are entirely focused on the scientific benefit of this exhibition,” Henning said. “I’m sure some people are sort of wondering where religion fits in. You know, we don’t take a religious stance.”
But ignoring that deceased bodies were once animated by human souls is one of the main reasons why religious leaders, including some Catholic bishops, oppose the Body Worlds exhibitions.
Christians have long affirmed that the human body is a sacred creation that retains dignity even in death.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that at the end of time, deceased human bodies will be raised in a glorified state similar to that of Christ after his resurrection.
The Body Worlds exhibits have been on tour throughout the world for more than 16 years, and wherever they go public debate follows. Almost always, it has been religious raising objections.
In 2008, then Cincinnati Archbishop Daniel Pilarczyk questioned whether Body Worlds treated human corpses in a manner that affirms the unique dignity of the human person as created in the image of God.
During an exhibit in Cincinnati, he contacted the Catholic schools in his archdiocese to advise against school field trips to the controversial show.
“Catholic moral thought does not regard body and soul as entirely separate,” he said at the time. “Rather, it recognizes that human beings are embodied spirits. That means the body is more than just a container for the soul. The church’s concern for the dignity of the human person extends, therefore, to the body even after the soul is no longer present.”
Kansas City Archbishop Joseph Naumann has called the Body Worlds exhibits a sort of “human taxidermy” that “degrades the actual people who, through their bodies, once lived, loved, prayed and died.”
In Canada, Edmonton Archbishop Richard Smith, in a joint statement with the head of the Ukrainian Catholic church, Bishop David Motiuk, said that he was concerned the display would undermine the idea of the dignity of the human person.
“When looking at the bodies, it’s very important that they won’t be objectified,” Archbishop Smith said when Body Worlds brought an exhibit to Edmonton several years ago. “These are bodies of people … It’s not just an object to be gawked at as an object of curiosity, but to be honored.”
Archbishop Smith told Metro, a local paper, “It’s hard reconciling a principle of our faith with a scientific practice that preserves the body indefinitely. It’s not clear to me what is done with the bodies when this exhibit is done long term.”
DISPOSING OF BODIES
In an email responding to questions from the Catholic Anchor, Georgina Gomez, director of development for Body Worlds, said that once the donated bodies are no longer usable they will be cremated and buried.
“Per the donors’ consent their bodies are not returned to their families, but buried in a cemetery,” Gomez explained. She did not say where the cemeteries are located but noted that, so far, Body Worlds has 1,000 donated dead bodies and another 12,000 people who have pledged to donate their bodies upon death.
Gomez said all of the donated bodies, which she calls “plastinates,” are currently still in use.
But those uses include selling plastinated body pieces via online credit card payments through the Body Worlds website. The buyers must purchase the body parts for educational or research purposes but there is no indication that Body Worlds tracks the body parts once they are sold.
Body pieces for sale include sections of the head, foot, torso and other areas, all listed in a catalogue with prices.
ORIGIN OF BODIES
Questions have been raised about the origins of the bodies used in exhibits.
Body Worlds maintains that all its bodies come from donors who gave consent to have their corpses put on exhibition. The pre-natal and infant bodies, however, which are used in some Body Worlds exhibits but none slated for Alaska, come from collections previously held by universities and medical institutions.
In the past, however, Body Worlds has addressed accusations that it obtained bodies from China, a nation with extensive human rights violations.
According to a 2004 LifeSiteNews report, von Hagens acquired seven bodies thought to have been from executed Chinese prisoners. All seven had head injuries indicative of being shot through the head. According to LifeSiteNews, von Hagens cremated the bodies and refused to use them in his exhibits. Body Worlds insists that all its bodies now come from European donors who gave consent.
The Catholic Church teaches that the use of the human body for medical research is permissible under certain circumstances but that it must be treated with the utmost respect.
Catholic teaching allows for bodies to be cremated but maintains they should be buried in one location in affirmation that one day they will be resurrected.
The Catechism states that “God raised the Lord and will also raise us up by his power. Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? . . . . You are not your own; . . . . So glorify God in your body.”
The Catechism goes on to affirm that “burial of the dead is a corporal work of mercy; it honors the children of God, who are temples of the Holy Spirit.”