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Corpse controversy

Bodies: The exhibitionI went to see Bodies: The Exhibition at the South Street Seaport Museum in New York. It uses real human corpses to illustrate anatomy. The bodies have been dissected and preserved using a polymer preservation process.

There are a number of full corpses, with their skin removed and various other parts removed or peeled back so you can see inside. There are also display cases containing other parts: bones, organs, and so on. There’s a lot of explanatory text.

It was interesting for awhile, but nine rooms of body parts is a bit much. I probably shouldn’t have read all the explanatory text. And it might have been better without the diseased bits, like the gallstones, cancers and birth defects.

A lot of people hear about this exhibit and think it sounds macabre and icky. It’s not. My mother thought it would be ‘beautiful.’ It’s not. It’s educational rather than artistic, and nothing smells.

I didn’t realize when I went to see it that it was a copycat exhibit. The original is called Body Worlds. There are numerous copycat exhibits, and there are Chinese factories which exist solely to prepare bodies for these exhibits. I knew there was some controversy about how the bodies were obtained and whether the ‘donors’ had given consent for their bodies to be on display. The different exhibitions are owned by different people and there’s a lot of accusations flying back and forth between them about nefarious goings-on.

Consent is an interesting concept. Do you still own your body after you’re dead? Do you have a right not to be posthumously skinned and displayed in a glass case? Does it matter if a cross-sectional slice of your penis is seen by millions of people if nobody knows who it belongs to?

Body Worlds is currently on exhibit at the Montreal Science Centre.

5 comments to Corpse controversy

  • Deb

    And you thought your garden was freaking you out…holy shit. Did you go to Montreal for the whole weekend?

  • Deb, I wasn’t in Montreal – I saw one of the copycat exhibits in New York. (Too bad you didn’t hang around New York a bit while you were there – we could’ve seen it together!)

  • You asked: “Consent is an interesting concept. Do you still own your body after you’re dead?” Legally, the body belongs to the estate and is therefore controlled by the executor who is supposed to follow the wishes and directives of the (now) deceased. You can make your instructions to your executor pretty thorough. If not, they do have the right to make decisions once you are gone. And they can make decisions contrary to your wishes if those decisions are made under circumstances that makes them “better” for the estate than otherwise – for example, cremate you if you die overseas so you’ll be cheaper to ship home. All subject to surviving relatives objecting and taking it all to court, of course.

  • That’s interesting Julia. In the case of some of the copycat exhibitions, they say that these are ‘unclaimed bodies’ supplied by police departments – in some cases the identity is unknown, in other cases the next of kin refuses to claim the body.

  • Also interesting! If you don’t leave a will or name an executor (personal representative), then the responsibility for what to do with your body falls to whoever volunteers for the job, and in some cases, that ends up being the state. Not the way I would choose to go however.