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Exhibit inspires many to donate bodies

Plastination can turn a corpse into 'an object of enlightenment,' says Body Worlds founder at L.A. meeting.

June 08, 2008|Rong-Gong Lin II | Times Staff Writer

South Los Angeles resident Erlyne Toney-Alvarez, 67, had always planned to be cremated when she died. Simple. Inexpensive. Graves, she said, are a waste of land occupied by the dead.

Then she saw the intricately plastinated bodies at a California Science Center exhibit -- bodies that had been stripped of their fat, filled with plastics and shown off in all their muscular, organic and anatomical glory for the world to see in traveling shows.

Now that, she thought, is the way she wants to go.

"I was so excited," she said of seeing the exhibit with her twin sister, Ernestine Toney-Dixon. "We went to the exhibition hall and we just got so overwhelmed with all this new stuff, and we said, 'We're going to donate our bodies!' "

Toney-Alvarez and her sister were among 115 future body donors who met Saturday with Dr. Gunther von Hagens, the creator of Body Worlds and the inventor of the plastination technique. Forty-seven others in attendance were friends or relatives of the donors.

Many said they were inspired after seeing Body Worlds' anatomical exhibitions. The California Science Center hosted the exhibition's first North American visit, which began in 2004. Since then, Body Worlds has traveled to numerous cities nationwide. The exhibit is on its third tour at the Science Center and is scheduled to be on display until September.

The exhibits feature whole bodies, down to the muscles and organs, that are posed acrobatically. Its first two runs drew record crowds in L.A. There are now four Body Worlds tours rotating among museums in North America. And along the way, hundreds of people have to pledged to donate their bodies for plastination.

According to Dr. Angelina Whalley, Von Hagens' wife, 8,625 people worldwide have agreed to give their bodies to Von Hagens' German-based Institute for Plastination. While 85% of donors are from Germany, 728 donors are from the United States.

In his hourlong lecture Saturday, Von Hagens spoke about how, as a young medical student, he was dismayed at the poor quality of anatomical specimens, which were mostly colorless and locked in jars. He developed the plastination technique as an anatomist trying to find a better way to improve specimens, he said.

He also explained the reasons why the bodies are portrayed as acrobatic, life-like models. At Body Worlds' first exhibition in Japan, visitors commented on how dead the specimens looked. Von Hagens said the comments led him to realize that specimens should be portrayed realistically as living humans, similar to the way Renaissance scientists depicted human anatomy in lifelike poses.

Institute officials say 95% of donors have signed forms giving permission for their bodies to be publicly displayed. The other bodies are to be used by medical students studying anatomy.

Body Worlds' American donation program started shortly after the exhibit arrived in Los Angeles and visitors began asking museum staff how they could donate their bodies.

Toney-Alvarez said she was intrigued to see how bodies could be used to teach. She was amazed to see how preserved remains could illustrate how cancer consumes the body and how an aneurysm can kill.

The exhibit also touched a personal nerve. In 2003, Toney-Alvarez lost a sister, Irma Toney-Robinson, 60, to an aneurysm, and her father, Edward Toney, 87, to pancreatic cancer.

Donating her body is one way "you can give back to help the public understand," she said.

Her mother, Irma Henry, 85, also agreed to donate her body.

"I thought it was a good idea for medical students at first," Henry said. "Once I looked into it, the first thing that came to mind was how much money I'd save" on funeral expenses.

Many donors talked about how the donation would remove the need to buy a burial plot or pay for cremation. The Institute for Plastination pays for the process, which can take 1,500 work hours and a year to complete. Donors pay only the cost of transporting their bodies to the funeral home.

"I think graves are a waste of real estate," said donor Ron Cooper, 41, a truck mechanic who flew with his wife from Marion, N.C., for Saturday's talk. "I've only been to see my mother's grave" -- in Michigan -- "twice in the last 20 years."

His wife, Ann Cooper, 38, said she hopes her donation will inspire others to research a genetic disease she has -- polycystic kidney disease -- which causes abnormally large growth of kidneys. Cooper had one of her kidneys, which weighed 17 pounds, removed; her other kidney is failing.

She said the future donation of her body "is a way for me to give back to education."

David Keil, a 31-year-old engineer from Toronto, said the exhibits encouraged him to quit smoking.

"When I went through and actually saw the lungs, the ones that were black, I said, 'OK. That's it. I had enough,' " he said.

To donate their bodies, donors mail agreement forms to the Institute. Having an attorney witness the signature is recommended if a donor's relatives are not in favor of the donation.

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