Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Cadaver Shows: Voyeuristic or Educational?

A friend of mine just sent me this news article, announcing that France has banned a controversial human body exhibit, primarily because the producers of the show can't verify the origin of the bodies.

This exhibit, though inspired by the internationally known "Body Worlds" creator and inventor of plastination, Gunther von Hagens, is not one of his shows. He knows better than to skimp on the paper trail. He's got the paper trail down to a science. He doesn't even have to rely on the Chinese to provide him bodies since he's already got a list of over 6,500 mostly Europeans who hope to donate their bodies to him once they've slipped this mortal coil. Heck, 60% of the men and 30% of the women have even consented to let him display their bodies copulating or mixing their bodies with parts of an animal's to create a mythological creature.

Back in 2006, the Denver Museum of Nature and Science proudly announced it would be hosting the hugely prosperous traveling exhibit known as "Body Worlds."

At the time, we had a family membership and we would receive advance notice of new exhibits. I was shocked when I read about the upcoming exhibit. You see, we had lived in England from 2000 to 2003 and during that time I'd heard of von Hagens in rather unflattering terms. He was a showman who relished controversy and exhibited his corpses in art museum and erotic shows. "Body Worlds" promised to be a scientific show that would help people of all ages understand and appreciate the wondrous workings of the human body. The museum ethics board, which consisted of representatives from all the major faith groups in the Denver area, including the Archdiocese of Denver, declared it was morally fine because von Hagens had carefully preserved his paper trail showing all the bodies to be displayed had been lawfully obtained. What more could we ask?

I don't know whether or not the ethics panel asked other moralistic questions at the time, such as whether or not it was prudent to display human bodies in various poses including a reclining pregnant woman with her womb sliced open and the unborn baby visible inside. Human bodies, naked, but without skin, displayed for all to see.

I wrote to the director of the museum. I wrote to Archbishop Chaput. I wrote to Dr. Marilyn Coors, a Catholic and ethicist at the University of Colorado. I also wrote an opinion piece for the Denver Rocky Mountain News, which they published in February 27, 2006, in which I compared the "Body Worlds" exhibit to pornography; they both reduce the human person to a collection of body parts. It was only after my opinion piece was published that I heard back from anyone. And the only one I heard from was a publicist from the museum who called to ask me if I would reconsider my request for a refund of my membership which they offered to extend beyond the closing of the "Body Worlds" exhibit. (I accepted).

The day after my opinion piece was published I got a call from a reporter at the Rocky Mountain News. He wanted to ask me some questions about my views. Apparently I was one of only a few who objected to the exhibit. (One of only seven, I'm told). Even the Catholic Archdiocese of Denver was an official supporter of the exhibit and a spokesman for the archbishop is quoted as saying, "...[Von Hagens] should just shut the hell up because he's hurting himself and everybody who's trying to get something good out of this exhibit."

By the way, after Pope John Paul II died, von Hagens offered to plastinate his corpse. The Church declined the offer. Guess they couldn't find anything good about the offer.

None of this really matters to von Hagens because he lives for controversy. Despite some who want him to "shut the hell up," he just keeps going and going and going. The greater the controversy, the better. He put on an erotic show in the red-light district of Amsterdam and invited prostitutes and taxi drivers to come to the show free of charge. Last year, he opened another erotic show in Berlin. His newest displays of shock and awe at first spark controversy, then the furor dies down and he goes on to create something more shocking the next time around. Lady Gaga has announced she will go on tour early next year with some of his cadavers (singing back-up? At least she doesn't have to worry about them upstaging her!) Von Hagens is now selling human body parts by mail order. Not even the Nazis did that. (Although they purportedly made things like lampshades out of Jews' skin). And von Hagens' latest pet project is to open a home for the terminally ill, called the Villa of the Last Breath, where the terminal residents have agreed to let people watch them die.But we're supposed to believe the von Hagens' supporters who proclaim that he's doing his work "for humanity" and his motives are to promote the "democratization of anatomy." For the children's sake.

It's not about the millions and millions of dollars. Really.

Statue of St. Bartholomew, with his own skin, by Marco d'Agrate, 1562 (Duomo di Milano)
from Wikipedia article on St. Bartholomew the Apostle
Perhaps the reason over 30 million people worldwide have flocked to see the corpse shows is because they've lost a sense of the sacred. No more do we reverence the holy saints who died for the faith, whose relics have been preserved for two millennia. Instead, we embrace the cult of the soul-less bodies, and deny them humanity. Christians long ago revered those who died for the faith, such as St. Bartholomew, who is often depicted holding his own skin, since his manner of death was being flayed alive. If you look at ancient depictions of St. Bartholomew, it's amazing how much they resemble the modern day flayed bodies von Hagens takes on the road. But each von Hagens' corpse bears a sign with only von Hagens' name, the artist who created him; individual humanity has been stripped away and replaced with anonymity.

Archbishop Fulton Sheen once said, "As the Church drops certain practices and ideals, the world picks them up and secularizes them. As the rosary is dropped, hippies put them around their necks; as nuns drop the long habits, girls put on maxi-coats; as mysticism is forgotten, youths go in for psychedelic experiences; as Christ is dropped, the theater restores Him as a superstar." Fulton John Sheen (1895-1979), Those Mysterious Priests [1974] 

I would add, as we forget the corporal works of mercy--feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, visit those in prison, shelter the homeless, visit the sick and bury the dead--the world will pick them up and secularize them.