What’s next for Body Worlds?

body worlds 16Almost a year ago, M.Z. Hemingway had an interesting post about the controversial Body Worlds exhibits. You may remember they feature artworks by Dr. Gunther von Hagens that consist of dead, flayed, dissected human beings preserved in plastic.

These exhibits raise all kinds of ethical and moral questions. Some newspapers, such as The Dallas Morning News, have continued asking religious questions about them, as well. Take, for example, an essay the newspaper offered by the Catholic philosopher Thomas Hibbs, who leads the honors college at Baylor University. Writing back in December — not a bad time of year to think about incarnation, body and soul — Hibbs concluded with this observation:

The problem with death in our culture is not that we have taboos about it, but that we lack a rich language for articulating the experience and its meaning. It’s hard to see how Body Worlds will help solve that problem. Indeed, what is on display is not the mystery of death, but the reduction of bodies to inert plasticized parts displayed for viewers — a pornography of the dead human body.

Body Worlds brings us face to face with something, but it will leave us mute and inarticulate — the very image of what we behold.

That’s one way to state the controversial question at the heart of this story.

But, wait, you just know where things have to go from here. Right? In a new Q&A in the News, Godbeat specialist Jeffrey Weiss asks von Hagens a series of logical questions. Sure enough, the creator of the Body Worlds movement is ready to take his art to the next level.

Push “play” on the recorder:

I understand you hold regular meetings with potential body donors. Why and how does that work?

[He has a list of more than 6,000 people, mostly Germans, who have signed up to have their bodies plastinated after they die. He sends them an annual newsletter and holds a meeting every two years.]

We talk about ethical questions. Last meeting, we talked about the act of love: to do it or not to do it?

You mean exhibiting plastinates in a sexual position? How did the donors feel about that?

About 60 percent of men are in favor of it. Only 30 percent of women are. My wife says that women care more about who they would end up with.

I do not think this was what the late Pope John Paul II was talking about in his “Theology of the Body” lectures.

Then again, this phenomenon would fit right into a lecture on John Paul’s writings about the “Culture of Death.”

You ask good questions and you get interesting information. Well, let’s call that depressing information. Talk about a haunted story.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • http://carelesshand.net Jinzang

    Strange. I wouldn’t have thought that there were any ethical issues involved with this exhibit. In Buddhism there’s a class of meditations called charnel ground meditation, where the meditator visits a charnel ground and observes corpses in various states of decay in order to develop detachment from the body. It seems to me that this exhibit could serve something of the same purpose.

  • Martha

    But it’s science! So that makes it all right!

    This is a freak show, and should be licensed accordingly. You know, like the geek who bites the heads off live chickens or, as I believe a Chinese version has it, women who swallow live snakes.

    What is it with pathologists, anyway? First Dr. Kevorkian and now this guy – and does anyone else think he is deliberately modelling himself on Dr. Pretorius from “Bride of Frankenstein” with the surgical gown combined with the trilby hat?

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt


    That’s a great point that could be included in a feature on that topic. So the moral status of the exhibit would be different in different faiths.

    Ancient Christianity was not afraid of relics, obviously. Maybe Body Worlds is LITERALLY a secular religious event?

  • Jeffrey Weiss

    Hm. I think you take out of it a lot of what you bring in. A secular religious event? Hm. I’ve looked at the visitor comment books every time I’ve been to the exhibit. A few more write that say they see evidence for God’s creation than say they see evolution at work. Many say this makes them want to go into medical work of various kinds. Some write that they are creeped out. But not many.
    btw, I did a much longer look at how BW fits into a variety religious and cultural contexts last year, including some of the moral and ethical questions associated with the work. But I flat-out missed the Buddhist idea raised by Jinzang. Maybe next time!

  • ceemac


    Why did you not also reference the postive essay by Dr Daniel Foster that was in the same issue of DMN as the Hibbs essay.

    Foster is a leader in First Presbyterian Dallas and is a Professor at UT Southwestern Medical Center. He is also a member of the President’s Council on Bioethics.

  • http://altreligion.about.com Jennifer Emick

    I wouldn’t call this a freak show. People are curious, yes, and there may be a morbid element, sure, but ultimately, it’s educational.

  • corita

    I think that the Buddhist’s (or anyone’s) meditation on death by viewing decaying bodies is quite different than the BW exhibit. Decaying bodies at the charnel ground are actually being allowed to decay… um…naturally.
    These bodies are flayed, plasticized, and posed.
    I don’t need a dead body in a frightening plastick-y state looking like it is doing housework to remind me that I will die. Decaying bodies would do the trick. (I think, frankly, we don’t have enough of that thing in this culture.) I heard tell of a priest who comissioned his simple coffin years before his death, and had it standing in the corner of his office. That helped him to remember.

    But also, there has been a political concern, which many religious people have shared: Many of these bodies were donated by the Chinese government, I believe. There is some question as to whether they were used with the person’s consent, and whether they were bodies of political prisoners.

    That concern (use of prisoners’ bodies without consent, as tools) and the “semblance of something that is not acutally the thing it portrays itself to be,” are potential evils of treating the body materialistically, discussed by John Paul II in his Theology of the Body.

  • corita

    That was supposed to read, above:
    a semblance of something that is not actually what it portrays itself to be.

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  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt


    I did not see the actual tree-pulp paper. Some one sent me the Hibbs essay and there was no connecting link to the other essay.

    Glad to hear about it: Do you have the URL? That is not coming up when I scan Google News…

  • ceemac
  • Martha

    How educational? Educational in what sense? Ooh, look, we can turn real human bodies into bad imitations of shopwindow mannequins?

    I’ll come straight out and admit it: the guy creeps me out. His ghoulish pride in ‘plastinates’ – not bodies, corpses, human remains, but products of his brand name process, no relic of humanity left. Commodoties, things, not people. And any pretence that this is for science, education, etc. flew right out the window when he talks about ‘plastinates in a sexual position’. Copulating corpses – tell me how that teaches anything.

    It’s like those sideshow heads in jars or Barnum’s “Fiji Mermaid”.

  • Martha

    For something similar to the Buddhist meditative practice, see the mediaeval cadaver tombs:


    “A cadaver tomb (or “memento mori tomb”, Latin for “reminder of death”) is a church monument or tomb featuring an effigy in the form of a decomposing body.

    This often resembles a carved stone bunk-bed with the deceased shown alive or soon after death on the top level (life-sized and sometimes kneeling in prayer) and as a rotting cadaver on the bottom level, often shrouded and sometimes complete with worms and other flesh eating wildlife. The term can also be used for a monument that shows only the cadaver without the live person. The sculpture is intended as an allegory of how transient earthly glory is, since it depicts what we all finally become. A depiction of a rotting cadaver in art (as opposed to a skeleton) is called a transi.”

    And of course, there used to be the emphasis on how transient beauty was and how deceptive the allure of the flesh; that our bodies are ‘sacks of dung’; but all that was before it was considered morbid and life-denying and quietly dropped as embarrassing to sophisticated moderns.

    However, I do not see any of that spirit in the “Body Works” spectacle. I see someone playing with corpses like dolls, posing them and pulling them apart and re-building them like toys or objects, not former humans.

    Frankly, I’d rather rot into food for worms and weeds than be plastinated and made into a sterile, permanent, useless thing.

  • bob

    Well, it would seem to show exactly what people think of themselves and everyone else. The males, the 60%, most likley (ask the followup question) would do that with *anyone* now with their body, so why not then? They’re good Neoplatonists. What happens to the body doesn’t matter. Fr. George Florovsky is supposed to have written that a person is not a ghost in a corpse in the Christian view. This exhibit counts on that idea being untrue. Ghastly.

  • Alexei

    Ah, Bob, a man after my own heart.

  • magdalen

    “I’d rather rot into food for worms and weeds than be plastinated and made into a sterile, permanent, useless thing.”

    It could be argued that, as a rotting corpse, you ARE a sterile, permanent, useless thing.

    I take issue with saying that it’s not educational, or that it’s educational value is simply to see what science can do. That is not the point of this exhibit. It’s function is more akin to that of cadaver dissections.

    As a student of human anatomy, I can see the benefit in this exhibit. Studying muscles and bones and ligaments from a textbook can’t convey the true nature of these tissues or their relationship to one another. It’s just not that same. Tell me, would you really want your doctor performing surgery to be seeing the inside of a real human being for the first time when it’s you on the table? Or would you rather that he’d practiced a few times on someone who’s life wasn’t in the balance?

    Don’t get me wrong, I have my reservations about this exhibit, and the slippery slope our culture finds itself on as a result of it. Our constantly declining lack of respect for the human body is truely appalling.

    Food for thought: My utterly secular classmate went to see the exhibit (our muscoskeletal anatomy class all went together as a field trip). She noted to me that, after seeing the portion of the exhibit showing the stages of development in a fetus, and seeing how quickly the baby actually LOOKS like a baby really made her re-think her position on abortion.