I bristled yesterday as I read yet another faux-controversy concocting article in my misguided home town paper, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. You see, Body Worlds is coming to my town and the morality “experts” are getting restless. The “concern” is that maybe we shouldn’t be staring at dead bodies. The morality experts quoted by the article are suggesting that the Body Worlds exhibit, sponsored by the St. Louis Science Center, “exploits the dead for entertainment and commerce.”
The BODY WORLDS exhibitions are first-of-their-kind exhibitions through which visitors learn about anatomy, physiology, and health by viewing real human bodies, using an extraordinary process called Plastination a groundbreaking method for specimen preservation invented by Dr. von Hagens in 1977. Each exhibition features more than 200 real human specimens, including whole-body plastinates, individual organs, organ configurations and transparent body slices. The specimens on display stem from the body donation program that Gunther von Hagens established in 1983. The exhibitions also allow visitors to see and better understand the long-term impact of diseases, the effects of tobacco consumption and the mechanics of artificial supports such as knees and hips. To date, nearly 25 million people around the world have viewed the BODY WORLDS exhibits.
I visited the Body Worlds exhibit twice while it was in Chicago two years ago. The exhibition was breath-taking and educational. I plan to see Body Worlds III while it is in St. Louis. I plan to bring my kids (aged 7 and 9), because this is a terrific chance to learn about one of the most incredible phenomena on Earth—the human body. Viewing the body from the numerous perspectives offered by the exibitors, the question is not why it sometimes breaks down or dies. The real question is how it ever actually works, given its surreal complexity. There is no reason that human specimens should be viewable by anatomy students, but off-limits to the rest of us. Why has the viewing of dead humans become off-limits to most of us? There is probably no single reason, but it’s not because we aren’t interested in viewing dead bodies. I’ve long suspected that it’s due to a widespread reluctance to consider the undeniable fact that humans are animals. See here and here and here and here and here and here.
While at Body Worlds, I plan to be inspired (as I was in Chicago) by Gunther von Hagens’ professionalism and creativity. He puts boundless time and energy into preparing his specimens. Perhaps the problem for some people is that von Hagens has a little fun with his specimens. Instead laying the bodies out on slabs, he arranges them in real-world postures. They “do” things like play chess and ride bicycles. Oh, but how dare they arrange dead human bodies so that they are doing the same things that living humans do! Such disrespect!
Yes, there are now accusations that Body Worlds is “exploiting the dead for entertainment and commerce,” as though the dead can be exploited. And as though dead bodies aren’t exploited whenever they are dressed up for wakes, to allow us to pretend that those dead people are merely sleeping.
Consider yet another way of displaying images of dead human bodies: Two days ago, my family attended a St. Louis animal preserve run by Anheuser-Busch.
This beautiful facility is called “Grant’s Farm” because part of the land was once owned by Ulysses S. Grant. Given that Halloween is coming up, the grounds were decorated with ghoulish specimens that undoubtedly exploit the dead for entertainment and commerce.
Check out these photos, then nod your head in agreement that we have a stark double-standard at play:
In two weeks, images of creepy dead people like this will be ubiquitous. Children will dress up like dead decaying people and we will chuckle and hand them candy. We’ll revel in the realism of the costumes and images and no one will judge us as immoral because of our desire to combine kids, candy and corpses. We just can’t get enough of the stuff, of course, so we’ll need to do it all over again, year after year.
But that’s not all. Not only do we look at things we’re not supposed to look at (the dead). We refuse to look at things we should feel free to look at because they’re interesting. You want an example of that to which I am referring? It was an unplanned show that we also saw at Grant’s Farm. It was (drum roll) . . . Llama sex. No, this is not my code word for something metaphorical. I mean llama sex. Llamas having sex. Llamas in flagrante delicto.
My two daughters noticed two llamas going at it in the llama area about 100 feet away from the camel area where we were standing along with dozens of other people. My kids kept staring because what they saw was interesting. I eventually took their cue and announced, “Hey, let’s go take a look at those llamas.” Here’s what we saw.
The sounds were as interesting as the sight, I can assure you. My daughters and I spoke candidly about the scene as we watched for a minute or two.
The llamas were interesting, but not as interesting as the tourists who were pretending not to watch the llamas. Dozens of tourists remained standing up the hill, ostensibly viewing the camels, 100 feet from the randy llamas. They were all sneaking peeks at the llamas, though none of them wanted to be seen actually looking at llamas having sex. They really really (really) wanted to walk down the small hill and take a closer look at those grunting llamas along with my young daughters and me. In the end, only two or three immoral souls joined us (a mom and her two kids).
Is there a moral to these stories? Perhaps. What is certain is that people often claim to be offended by things that don’t really offend them. What they are really worried about is that someone else might think ill of them if they were seen looking at something they found interesting. That attitude is unfortunate. Life is short and looking at love-making llamas is not immoral (though maybe my llama sex photography is closer to that line!). I have no doubt that most of those people who were too embarrassed to stare at the llamas would have walked down the hill and watched, at least for a minute, had they been the only person in the park.
Maybe the next time those hesitant tourists spy something interesting, they will have the courage to ignore social pressures and actually go learn something. In the meantime, they might want to consider going to Body Worlds, whether or not their neighbor approves of that exhibit. If they do have the “guts” to actually see Body Worlds, they could, later that night, visit the judgmental neighbor wearing one of those gory Halloween skeleton costumes (to put the neighbor at ease) and then tell him or her a few of the amazing things they just learned by staring, unashamed, at creatively displayed human cadavers.