ethical nightmare


“Bodies: The Exhibition”: an Ethical Nightmare

Perhaps you may have heard about the hullaballoo surrounding the “Bodies” exhibition, here in Seattle, or its twisted sister “Body Worlds,” currently on display in Vancouver, B.C. Essentially, artists and curators subject human corpses to a kind of “plasticization” process whereby they are frozen in time, devoid of odor or the process of decomposition. The bodies are then placed on display, and the public is invited– for a modest fee, of course– to peruse the inner workings of the human object, and of course stop by the gift shop on the way out for a calendar or mug or t-shirt. Oh, but this is all, of course, for educational purposes, or to further the cause of “science.”

The “Bodies” exhibit is particularly reprehensible, from an ethical standpoint alone, as the bodies on display are unclaimed corpses procured in China. This means that no matter the convoluted synaptic justifications for the ‘right’ to display the bodies, they were in no way donated by their ‘original owners,’ as it were. Their excuse is that the bodies were donated in turn by a university, and are on loan. Of course, where the university received the bodies cannot be ascertained, but given China’s nasty history of human rights, as well as the trafficking in human organs of executed prisoners by the Chinese government (not to mention illegal smugglers), it’s not terribly difficult to come away from this concept with at the very least some rather disturbing questions.

“Body Worlds” (according to the exhibitioner), “at least” uses bodies which were appropriately donated before the deaths of the individuals (though how they’d feel about being posed on skateboards or playing soccer was undoubtedly missing from the questionnaire).

Regardless of the ethical jungle gym one might work one’s self through to justify these exhibits (”they’re for SCIENCE! They’re for EDUCATION!”), it’s difficult to consider this practice, from a spiritual perspective at least, as an act untinged by evil. This may seem an odd statement coming from a Gnostic, even moreso during this time of year when houses are decorated with spooky skellingtons and ghosts. However, as I’ve said before, one of the ultimate manifestations of evil is the treatmeant of other beings as objects. Placing these bodies on display reduces the inherent human value of these individuals as individuals. The average “Bodies” gawker, hardly a member of the “scientific” or “medical” establishment who would truly benefit from observing the intricate workings of the human body, will likely be wealthy, middle class, the curiousity seeker from the suburbs. This makes the display, for cash, of penniless and unclaimed– nameless– Chinese peasants a complete act of dehumanization, worthy of the decline of Rome (or at the very least, Karn Evil 9). No longer are the poor and colored enslaved in life alone, but are exploited after death as well, mere “edu-tainment” for those western individuals dulled senseless by the ethical ambiguity of “science.”

And yes, we do celebrate Hallowe’en and dress up as zombies and spectres, but instead of objectifying the namesless dead, this holiday allows us to confront our fears, psychologically– to recognize the fear of the unknown and celebrate it. It doesn’t attempt to sanitize death, remove its odor, denigrate the custom of respecting the dead by sticking their bodies in sterile museum corridors. Hallowe’en was never the creation of the scientific mindset.

There is no soul, there is no spirit, there is nothing after death– this is the worldview of these exhibits, regardless of the justifications which claim that even if there is a spirit that inhabits the body, it’s gone long before its container is “plasticized,” so who cares? I know at least a few people who might care, if indeed they’re from the traditional Chinese culture. In most of China, without proper burial of the body, a soul is doomed to linger in this realm bringing ill-fortune and tragedy to its family. It’s hard to imagine worse luck than ending up plasticized and on display, of course. Here’s a short description of proper burial preparation for a body:

Before being placed in the coffin, the corpse is cleaned with a damp towel, dusted with talcum powder and dressed in his/her best clothes from his/her own wardrobe (all other clothing of the deceased is burnt and not reused) before being placed on a mat (or hay if on a farm). The body is completely dressed- including footwear, and cosmetics if female- but it is not dressed in red clothes (as this will cause the corpse to become a ghost): white, black, brown or blue are the usual colours used. Before being placed in the coffin the corpse’s face is covered with a yellow cloth and the body with a light blue one.

Now compare this description with what actually happened to these people:

A human specimen is first preserved according to standard mortuary science. The specimen is then dissected to show whatever it is that someone wants to display. Once dissected, the specimen is immersed in acetone, which eliminates all body water. The specimen is then placed in a large bath of silicone, or polymer, and sealed in a vacuum chamber. Under vacuum, acetone leaves the body in the form of gas and the polymer replaces it, entering each cell and body tissue. A catalyst is then applied to the specimen, hardening it and completing the process.

The description above forgets to add, of course, one final comment. The last line should read, “…all without the consent of the ’specimen’ or the ’specimen’s family.” Bodies, specimens, what’s the big deal? *They* don’t care, *they* never had the chance to “opt out” of the mandatory donation process. *They* were never valuable, beautiful human individuals, each with a spark of the divine, each with a collection of individual experiences, loves, hates, passions, favorite foods, favorite articles of clothing, sons, daughters, mothers, fathers. They’re simply objects, presented here for your edification, so step right up! Enjoy the show!

I don’t know if it’ll do a lick of good for the families of these unclaimed victims of life, the universe and everything, or for the spirits of the dead individuals who may or may not be wandering the halls of all of those involved in this atrocious “exhibition,” but those nameless individuals will be in my prayers. Please consider adding them to yours, as well.

Brother Jeremy Puma is a gnostic. his article appeared on his blog.