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Why the Dead Are a Killer Act

June 12, 2005|Michael Sappol | Michael Sappol is author of "A Traffic of Dead Bodies" (Princeton University Press, 2002).

Last fall, when German anatomist Gunther von Hagens' "Body Worlds" exhibition hit Los Angeles, anatomical spectacle went "live." With real, formerly living, dissected and "plastinated" human body sculptures set in action poses, "Body Worlds" attracted an overflow audience.

To accommodate the ticket-buying crowds, the California Science Center not only extended the show's run, but also stayed open all night. The Von Hagens' franchise has now moved on to Chicago and Cleveland. But other anatomical plastination shows -- some, such as a current San Francisco show, directly imitative, some more restrained and pedagogical -- will be coming to your town soon.

Some critics have dismissed the wave of anatomical exhibitions as faddish sensationalism and voyeurism. But the spectacles are part of a larger cultural trend. Films, television shows and novels now regularly feature hyper-realistic depictions of dead and mutilated bodies, and often the interior of such bodies. And these are not just marginal productions, but hit shows and bestsellers, "CSI" and its many spinoffs and imitators among them. And they're not just about forensics. Mutilated or autopsied bodies also take a star turn on such comedic soap operas as "Desperate Housewives."

So what explains this fascination with the cadaver? If we instinctively recoil from death, why do we look, and keep looking? There are lots of reasons, none of which trumps any other, but I'll argue just one: our understandable desire to experience death. "Body Worlds" and kindred exhibitions give the living the opportunity to stand near the dead. Ticket sales to plastination shows would drastically decline if the sculptures were sculpted from plastic instead of human flesh. The medium is the message.

The dead body means a lot to us. In the corpse we see who we are -- mortal human beings -- and "our inevitable fate." We also see what we are not (but will be): a thing that decomposes and decays, and gradually loses its human identity and assumes a monstrous, repulsive aspect. And that's a universal of human existence. Death and the dead body will always matter to us, beyond the loss, grief, anger and incomprehension that death entails.

Death occurs in our society less frequently than in previous generations: We live longer and healthier. And when it does occur, we are protected from the experience. In past centuries, people usually died in their homes or workplaces, not hospitals, hospices or nursing homes. Family members, usually women, laid out the dead and planned the burial. Death -- the sight of dead bodies, contact with dead bodies -- was part of life. Today, medical and funerary professionals handle death.

Even the dying are, to some degree, spared by painkillers and anti-depressants that dull the enormity of what they face. Obviously, such practices represent a tremendous advance -- but there is also a loss. Death is a part of human experience. And so we want to see.

The forensic shows and plastinated exhibitions recruit this desire to experience death. It is an understandable and justifiable pleasure, even if a guilty one. This is stuff we usually don't see and, we think, really shouldn't.

But unlike horror movies, the plastination exhibits and forensic shows come with a (more or less plausible) moral justification: that our bodies, inside and outside, are governed by science and reason and law. The shows are educational, a science lesson, civics lesson, a lesson in health -- which helps to assuage an uneasy conscience on the implicit voyeurism of it all.

And there is also an uneasiness with the disagreeable fact that the dead, in this venue, have been conscripted to perform for the amusement of the living, and the profit of the showman. Even the most avid free-market ideologues believe that there should be regulation and limits to observe some form of funerary honor and respect. Which is not a problem for "CSI" -- just a matter of special effects there.

But it is a problem for Von Hagens and his fellow anatomical exhibitionists, who tend to get their bodies from places where human rights are precarious or nonexistent and bioethical standards are not enforced -- such as China and the central Asian former republics of the Soviet Union -- and who therefore cannot honestly meet any ethical standard of informed consent.

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