Don’t stare at dead things or animals having sex.

| October 17, 2007 | 76 Replies

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.”

What is Body Worlds?  Check out the short video at the bottom of this page.  Here’s a written description from the official Body Worlds site:

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, body_worlds_03.jpgindividual 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.

skeleton II.jpg

body out of grave1.jpg

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.  Skeleton III.jpgskeleton I.jpg

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.


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Category: American Culture, Human animals, Meaning of Life, Psychology Cognition, Science, Sex

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (76)

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  1. Vicki Baker says:

    Erich – Maybe self-congratulation isn't the right word, but perhaps too willing to assume that an intellectual insight is the same as fully coming to terms with something. You have to agree that it takes a special talent to look down one's nose on both sides, so to speak.

    I think the reason why we need rituals and practices to cope with the death of a loved one is because we've developed a theory of mind and we need to come to terms with the physical absence of someone who is integrated into our own personalities. We come together to compose and compile the corpus of stories about the individual who has died, and to write the final chapter. Because there will be no new stories about the dead person.

    In BodyWorlds, it's the impression of the assembly line that I find off-putting. Medical students dissecting a cadaver are really getting to know a distinct individual through their remains. But at BodyWorlds, the dead are arranged like so many mannekins at a department store.

    Projectleiterin:iIch ärgere mich nicht, sondern amusiere mich.

  2. Vicki: Gut, gut. Zeig's ihm. 😀

  3. grumpypilgrim says:

    Vicki writes: "A better analogy might have been sex."

    OK, let's use that example. Is it appropriate for people to openly discuss their sexual experiences — in detail — in public? Even Dr. Ruth has reasonable limits on what she says and where she says it.

  4. Vicki Baker says:

    Define "in public." How much detail? It's all very vague. Can you describe a specific personal experience of the type of inappropriate talk you are condemning?

  5. grumpypilgrim says:

    Vicki also mentions breast feeding. That's another good example: though we celebrate the dedication of women who breast feed their child in public, are there still not boundaries on what we consider reasonable ways to do it?

    More to the point: let's go back to Erich's original post about him and his daughters watching the lovemaking of those randy llamas. He wrote: "Maybe the next time those hesitant tourists spy something interesting, they will have the courage to ignore social pressures and actually go learn something." Let's apply this reasoning to Vicki's breast feeding example: is it appropriate for a man to stare at a woman breast feeding her child in public, the way Erich's daughters stared at those llamas? Is it appropriate for a man to walk up to a women who is breast feeding her child, explain that he finds her behavior "interesting," and ask for a closer look?

    Now let's tie the topics together: is there any substantial difference between defending the right of a pregnant woman to graphically discuss her experiences at a PTA meeting, and defending the right of a man to intently observe a woman breast feeding her child in a public park? According to Vicki's arguments, both would appear to be perfectly OK — we're all just curious animals, after all.

  6. Vicki Baker says:

    are there still not boundaries on what we consider reasonable ways to do it [breastfeed}?

    is it appropriate for a man to stare at a woman breast feeding her child in public

    defending the right of a pregnant woman to graphically discuss her experiences at a PTA meeting,

    Grumpy, you must go to some interesting PTA meetings! If we imagine a scale of grossitude from 1 (When is the baby due) to 10 (descriptions of perineal cutting/tearing/stitching), I really think you'll find that most public discussions of pregnancy are well under 6 or 7. Most women seem to be able to be make fairly appropriate decisions in this area, in my experience. YMMV. And of course, if you visit within the 1st week post-partum, be prepared for anything.

    Grumpy, can you describe a single specific instance. including the circumstances, others present, etc, of the type of thing you're complaining about?

  7. Vicki Baker says:

    hmm, looks like part of my comments got eaten by the Internets. Could have been the quake that hit while I was typing. This is what I meant to say:

    "are there still not boundaries on what we consider reasonable ways to do it [breastfeed}?"

    The baby should be positioned so as to latch on properly.

    "is it appropriate for a man to stare at a woman breast feeding her child in public"

    Staring can also be a sign of aggression and/or sexual attraction, which would be worrisome to a woman in that situation.

    Still not convinced that more open discussion of childbearing issues reflects a grave threat to the social fabric of our nation.

  8. What is a PTA meeting?

    is there any substantial difference between defending the right of a pregnant woman to graphically discuss her experiences at a PTA meeting, and defending the right of a man to intently observe a woman breast feeding her child in a public park?

    Because he's a creep. I know that many guys have difficulties understanding why women will call another man creep or scum, so I don't really expect you to understand it, but I would recommend you not to emulate his behavior.

    Why is that on the one hand grumpy and Erich say that we're just animals and people a bit too uptight, but on the other hand grumpy feels annoyed when people do animal things like breast feeding their child in public, talking about their pregnancy (ok, animals don't do this, but if they could talk they would), sex and bowel movement? And where is the scientific mind that appreciates the manifold details of her operation. If that was a BBC documentary you'd love it. Every minute of it. Every second it. 😀

  9. grumpypilgrim says:

    "Still not convinced that more open discussion of childbearing issues reflects a grave threat to the social fabric of our nation."

    Obviously, that wasn't my complaint; merely that I find it odd that some women seem so interested in discussing pregnancy, even though it is a routine biological function. Sorry, I can't provide a specific example…it's been a very long time since anyone I know has been pregnant.

    Vicki's mention of sex has had me thinking more about Erich's original post above. Though we are all animals, we are also *social* animals, which means we have a wide range of social rules that we all live by. What's important about these rules, as Erich's post points out, is that most (if not all) of them are largely arbitrary. Take the example of breast feeding. We do not, for example, consider it appropriate in America for a woman to remove her blouse to breast feed her child, but there are human societies in which topless breast feeding is seen as ordinary behavior. Likewise, nude sunbathing is a routine practice in some inner-city parks in Europe, but would be considered a crime in virtually any American city. Defecating in public is a crime, as far as I know, everywhere in America, but on the Mongolian plains it is done by everyone. Public sex, to my knowledge, is condemned pretty much everywhere, but is there a rational reason why it should be? Bonobo monkeys do it all the time and seem no worse for it.

    These are the sorts of questions Erich's post raises — that we should all be more aware of the unwritten rules that we all live by, and that perhaps we should question those rules.

  10. gatomjp says:

    Grumpy, I don't mean to pick endlessly on this one point, but you once again reveal what seems to be a subconscious disdain for women, or childbearing, or both in your choice of words! You make amends and the you ruin it with a statement like this…

    "I find it odd that some women seem so interested in discussing pregnancy, even though it is a ROUTINE biological function."

    Pooping is a routine biological function, happening several times a day, if we are lucky. Childbirth happens less than a handful of times in a person's LIFE and is the creation of a completely new human being! If that doesn't qualify as the opposite of routine, I don't know what does. I'm not trying to romanticize childbirth, but it is kind of special.

    Maybe you should have said NATURAL instead of routine, but you didn't. Maybe your analogy should have been sex instead of poop, but it wasn't. Why DID you choose the words that you did? I think that you are perplexed at the response of some of us here to your words because you are still somewhat unaware of the underlying mindset that they accidentally reveal. Sorry to be an amateur pyschoanalyst from a distance, but that's how I see it.

  11. Vicki Baker says:

    "I can’t provide a specific example…it’s been a very long time since anyone I know has been pregnant."

    So, your original "observation" did not contain much actual observation.

    "a routine biological function"

    Biological yes, routine no. Let's hope not anyway.

    "I find it odd that some women seem so interested in discussing pregnancy"

    I find it odd that a certain type of "women's work" still seems so invisible to a certain type of man. Do you really think that because pregnancy and birth are "biological", that there is no planning, thought, decision-making and preparation to be done? You really have no idea why a pregnant woman might want to compare notes with other parents? Also, and this may be news to you, certain kinds of conversations are meant to build social bonds as much as to exchange information. You can't think of any reasons why prospective parents would want to build social bonds?

  12. Vicki Baker says:

    Projektleiterin: PTA- "Parent-Teacher Association" – it's a volunteer association for parents at most schools that does fundraising and service work to support the school. Mostly, but not exclusively women. We all sit around drinking martinis and comparing our stretch marks.

  13. gatomjp is a guy, but he gets it. This: "ROUTINE biological function", is exactly what bothers me, too. Routine biological functions are pooping, sweating, blinking, digesting, breathing, etc, but being pregnant? Uh, no. There used to be a time where women had widely accepted that being pregnant was going to be a permant condition in their life until menopause set in, but women have come a long way and most are probably glad that being pregnant is not a routine in their life.

    grumpy doesn't have issues with pregnant women talking too much, he has issues with women and unless he comes to terms with these nobody will be able to convince him that comparing pregnancy with bowel movement is a pretty bad idea.

  14. Thanks for the clarification, Vicki!

  15. gatomjp says:

    Thanks proj. Part of the reason I get it is because not only am I a guy, but I'm a father too. Childbirth can be messy and painful and scary…but it's also pretty darn cool! One of the coolest things I've ever witnessed! Also, I feel that I have to keep jumping into this discussion so that it doesn't degenerate into just the boys vs the girls.

    In one post it was implied that grumpy and Edgar were "childless" males. Is that true? If so, that could help explain grumpy's somewhat skewed "outsider" viewpoint of the process. Once you've been a part of it all the yucky stuff takes a back seat to the coolness of it.

  16. grumpypilgrim says:

    Again, responding to my critics, it is amazing how much you folks will read into a single word. One word and I am condemned as a misogynist. It just so happens my time lately is very limited, so I did not spend nearly as much time deliberating over my post as you all have. What I was thinking when I wrote my last comment is that childbirth happens every day, every hour, every minute; ergo, it is routine. It might not be "routine" in the life of an individual woman, but that was not the perspective I had in mind. Please try harder to realize that whatever personal perspective each of you have on this subject, other people can have different perspectives without being woman-hating beasts. Honestly, I really wish you folks would take my comments less personally and respond with reasoned arguments instead of ad hominem attacks.

  17. Vicki Baker says:

    Grumpy, here's another thought for you. I think if you would actually observe real conversations about childbirth, you might be surprised at how many are not initiated by the mom-to-be. It's like people just know that a woman is pregnant, without being told! (some kind of 6th sense I guess) And they want to talk to her about it! In fact, for a woman to respond "It's a routine biological function, I don't want to talk about it," would actually against all social expectations,More than that, the other person would have reasonable grounds to worry about the fate of a baby born to such an indifferent mother.

    Gatomjp – I guess I just assumed that Grumpy was childless. My bad. About Edgar, I have no idea. It's generally true that most men don't become interested in the topic of childbearing until they are involved in their child's birth. It's not always true though – I had several single men come to my pre-birth party (not really a conventional shower) and also sign up to do errands and whatnot after the birth on the sign-up sheet my friend passed around.

    By the way, I don't want at all to imply that anyone needs to have children to live a full life or anything like that. I know a few people who have decided not to have kids out of personal conviction, but who go out of their way to be supportive of families with young kids as a way of being involved with the next generation. Even if someone doesn't want to do that, it's OK – they just might want to do a little more observation and reflection before making normative pronouncements.

  18. Vicki Baker says:

    You know, Grumpy, I am actually fairly busy myself.

    I have given you several good reasons and suggestions for thought, drawing on personal experience as well as study of anthropology and history, why conversation and social bonding around childbearing is not only natural but necessary. You haven't acknowledged any of them. Until your brain is ready to absorb new information, I guess the question of why women "seem so interested in discussing pregnancy" is destined to be forever a mystery to you. And my time is better spent elsewhere.

  19. grumpypilgrim says:

    Vicki, I have not responded to your various comments about *pregnancy* because they are irrelevant to my comment about the *social behavior* that I mentioned in my original comment. If you had made any effort to read and understand *my* comments, you would see that they have never had anything to do with pregnancy, per se. The trouble is that *you* seem to be overly sensitive about this subject — as demonstrated by things such as: a) your extreme over-reaction to my comments; b) your very long, disproportional replies; c) your ad hominem attacks; d) your failure to address the substance of my comment about the social behavior that I mentioned; etc.

    Perhaps my own perspective on this subject would help you to better see my point of view. I spent a large percentage of my career working in the medical device manufacturing industry, making very complex devices for monitoring the function of the central and peripheral nervous system. Among other things, these devices were used to monitor the functioning of the brain and spinal cord during extremely high-risk neurosurgeries; e.g., 12+ hour operations where a bad outcome would almost certainly leave the patient paralyzed, brain dead, or just plain dead. Accordingly, based on *my* experience with surgical matters, pregnancy is just not a big deal. Perhaps it is, or perhaps it is to you, given your experience, but, from my perspective, well, it's not brain surgery, at least not in most cases.

  20. Vicki Baker says:

    Grumpy, your received some feedback from several people about the impression you were creating. Take it for what it's worth and move on.

    Much of what I have written here is quite germane to the "social behavior" topic, including my very first observation, which was drawn from sociolinguistics, and which you apparently chose to perceive as a personal attack. Your "pregnancy is not brain surgery" line is not going to convince anyone that you have much insight into the social dynamics of the human animal. Here's a hint: not all communicative acts that humans engage in have the purpose of exchanging information about a technical topic.

    The work you have done sounds very valuable and you are evidently quite intelligent. But please realize that your initial comment was not stating your perspective, but instead a claim to *objectively* know which category of experience pregnancy belongs to, and a value judgment that women talk too much (endlessly) about this subject. Both your category assignment and the "endlessly" comment reflect your subjective opinion. Do you think that if you had stated your initial observation more clearly as your subjective opinion, you would have gotten the reaction you did?

    Yes, I have quite strong feelings on this subject. That, my dear, is the point. Perhaps I wouldn't need to be so passionate about this subject if I lived in Sweden or some country with good family leave and maternal health policies and an open, healthy attitude toward sexuality and reproductive issues. But I don't. In the kind of society I want to live in, every child is born into a welcoming community and all parents have access to the supportive services they need. Until that day, hurrah for all the uppity women who talk and agitate so endlessly to bring about change and better outcomes for pregnant women and babies.

    Perhaps, if you want others to see your perspective, you might model this behavior?

  21. Erich Vieth says:

    Here's an article on a multi-front attack on Halloween:

    Say a prayer, a spell, or a demonic incantation for Halloween. This October, as in past Octobers, many schools are refusing to celebrate the holiday. Others have recast it as "Fall-o-Ween" or "Orange and Black Day" or, in words carefully calibrated to be as generic as possible, the "Fall Festival."

  22. "I always had bodies that were donated – otherwise it would have been against my aim of democratising anatomy. But my reputation suffered. I had to go to court [when the allegations surfaced in Der Spiegel] and I won. I was fed up with being mixed up with the copycat exhibitors. You cannot know where a Chinese corpse comes from. There are no Chinese bodies in any of my exhibitions. [emphasis mine]"

    Compare it with this:

    The controversial German anatomist Gunther von Hagens last night agreed to return seven corpses to China after admitting that the bodies used in his exhibitions might have come from executed prisoners.

    Professor Von Hagens, whose show Body Worlds provoked fascination and disgust when it opened in London two years ago, said the corpses would now be buried. His statement follows a damning exposé this week by the German magazine Der Spiegel.

    It revealed that at least two corpses out of some 647 stored by the anatomist at his centre in China had bullet holes in their skulls. Splashing the story on its cover under the headline Dr Death, the magazine this week produced damning email correspondence from Prof Von Hagens' Chinese manager, Sui Hongjin.,2763,…

    What a hypocrite!

    And what can you expect from someone anyway who says things like, "[I] enjoyed operating in a Communist country."

  23. And now he wants to sell slices of dead bodies to private individuals. – Ugh.,1

  24. Erich Vieth says:

    German anatomists plan a new show dedicated solely to dead bodies having sex as part of the Body Worlds exhibitions. . . "It's not my intention to show certain sexual poses. My goal is really to show the anatomy and the function," Body Worlds creative director Whalley told Reuters in an interview, adding the sex exhibition may open next year.

  25. jade says:

    uhmm….. well this is only particoally messed up ????? hahahahhaahahahahahahah ur funny.. dont stare at dead things or llamas having sex well gues what i did!!!!!!!!! muhahahahahah stop me now before i say something stupid?

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