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Monday, July 31, 2006

Human Sensibility

What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty, in form and moving how express and admirable, in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god—the beauty of the world, the paragon of animals!
William Shakespere (Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, 1604)

The burial of the dead is one of our oldest instincts. Over 400 years before the birth of Christ, Sophocles wrote the play, “Antigone”, in which a Theban princess defies the ruler to bury her brother who was ordered to remain unburied because he had fourght against Thebes. Even though her ‘burial’ was just a ritual handful of dirt scattered upon her brother's remains to satisfy the will of the Gods, she was condemned to death for refusing to violate the taboo.

What, then, would Sophocles think of a traveling show composed of over 200 actual human corpses, some still entire and posed in lifelike ways, which has come to the Museum of Science in Boston?


The exhibit is called Body Worlds II (there was a One, and a Body Worlds Three) and a link to the exhibit and a description of the process used to preserve the bodies can be found HERE which also includes a four-minute video tour of the exhibit. Not since the Tombs of the Pharaohs has there been such an elaborate treatment of the husk left behind when the soul departs.

"The purpose of Plastination from its very inception was a scientific one, to educate medical students. But the interest of lay people in the plastinated specimens inspired me think of public exhibitions, which was followed by the realization that I had to offer a heightened sense of aesthetics to avoid shocking the public and to capture their imagination,” says Dr. Von Hagens.


Well, the Doctor has certainly captured Porupine's imagination here. Although he hails from a time when 'resurrection men' were hanged - an undoubeted hinderance to bona fide medical science and study - Porcupine is now an organ donor and understands intellectually the reasons why the study and advance of medecine needs to study human remains. There is no doubt that the exhibition is an educational one. The lungs of smokers are displayed next to the lungs of non-smokers, and there are other such exhibits which demonstrate the ravages of disease. But as you look at the photos, and perhaps the exhibit, please keep something in mind. These are actual people, who got up in the morning, dressed, went to work, and so on. It is stated that they volunteered for this process, and it is to be hoped that there are no John Does with no next of kin, doomed to peripateic travels rather than rest in even an unmarked grave.

Porcupine has an uneasy feeling that the exhibit is designed instead to desensitize us all to human remains, to make nothing sacred by breaking the oldest taboo of all. Mankind is not just another animal, despite this display of gleaming plasticized musculature. Man is the only animal that knows he is going to die, which is why the remains of the dead are treated with the reverence they are, for indeed, As I am Now, So You Shall Be, So Stranger, Stop and Pray for Me.

Perhaps Porcupine will take a small vial of Cape Cod sand to scatter surreptitiously upon the toes of these 200 former persons. Somebody else will have to help with the silver for the Ferryman.

3 Comments:

Blogger James R Ament said...

I saw Body Worlds I at USC, attending reluctantly at first, but ultimately fascinated. I now live in CO so I went to Body Worlds II in Denver, encouraging everyone I knew to go see it. Briefly stated, it is highly educational rather than morbid. "What a piece of work is a man!"

9:54 PM  
Blogger Katina Mooneyham said...

It's definitely a taboo subject it seems. But I think there is much more maturity to this. My kids even want to see it although that is highly unlikely because of traveling and all that.

Thanks for the links though to this actual exhibit. I didn't know about it until I read it here. It seems, well rather interesting at least.

11:41 AM  
Blogger Dirty Butter said...

It's bound to be a fascinating exhibit, but I understand what you mean about it desensitizing people to dealing with human remains. I don't think it would have a harmful effect on an adult's attitudes, but I fear it might on a child's.

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