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Controversial Bodies

Thoughts on the Public Display of Plastinated Corpses

edited by John D. Lantos, M.D.

Publication Year: 2011

Controversial, fascinating, disturbing, and often beautiful, plastinated human bodies—such as those found at Body Worlds exhibitions throughout the world—have gripped the public's imagination. These displays have been lauded as educational, sparked protests, and drawn millions of visitors. This book looks at the powerful sway these corpses hold over their living audiences everywhere. Plastination was invented in the 1970s by German anatomist Gunther von Hagens. The process transforms living tissues into moldable plastic that can then be hardened into a permanent shape. Von Hagens first exhibited his expertly dissected, artfully posed plastinated bodies in Japan in 1995. Since then, his shows have continuously attracted so many paying customers that they have inspired imitators, brought accusations of unethical or even illegal behavior, and ignited vigorous debates among scientists, educators, religious leaders, and law enforcement officials. These lively, thought-provoking, and sometimes personal essays reflect on such public displays from ethical, legal, cultural, religious, pedagogical, and aesthetic perspectives. They examine what lies behind the exhibitions' popularity and explore the ramifications of turning corpses into a spectacle of amusement. Contributions from bioethicists, historians, physicians, anatomists, theologians, and novelists dig deeply into issues that compel, upset, and unsettle us all.

Published by: The Johns Hopkins University Press


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pp. v-vi


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pp. vii

List of Contributors

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pp. ix-x

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Introduction: Plastination in Historical Perspective

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pp. 1-16

Museum exhibitions of chemically transformed, meticulously dissected, and artistically displayed cadavers have become quite popular. Over the last decade, tens of millions of people throughout North America, Europe, and Asia have paid fifteen to twenty-five dollars each to see these exhibitions. ...

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1. Being Non-biodegradable: The Lonely Fate of Metameat

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pp. 17-24

The preservation of human bodies by plastination converts humans into objects. These dead people do not appear to decay, and so we are protected, despite the graphic exposure of their insides, from the physical revulsion we might expect to feel in the presence of human remains. ...

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2. Lifelike Humans: Playing Poker with James Bond and Ted Williams

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pp. 25-35

In the most recent movie version of Casino Royale (2006), Daniel Craig, who plays British agent James Bond, follows an international criminal into a Body Worlds exhibit. The exhibit, featuring three plastinated bodies playing poker, is the perfect backdrop to foreshadow the high-stakes poker game around which the movie’s plot pivots. ...

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3. More Wondrous and More Worthy to Behold: The Future of Public Anatomy

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pp. 36-47

To the maxim “everything old is new again,” the exhibitions of plastinated human bodies traveling the globe are no exception. Although the scale of these exhibits is unprecedented, as is their popularity, in spirit they hearken back to a prior practice of European humanist education. ...

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4. Resisting the Allure of the Lifelike Dead

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pp. 48-54

When we want to be, we humans are easily tricked. In psychiatry, we talk about denial; in theater we deal in suspension of disbelief. Both are at play in the current widespread public enthusiasm for touring exhibits of dead people. ...

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5. Detachment Has Consequences: A Note of Caution from Medical Students’ Experiences of Cadaver Dissection

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pp. 55-62

Katherine Treadway wrote about her first experience as a medical intern responding to a “code blue.”1 In the aftermath of the organized but unsuccessful chaos that ensued, Dr. Treadway became uncomfortably aware of the everydayness of the process. ...

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6. The History and Potential of Public Anatomy

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pp. 63-72

Millions of people have toured Gunther von Hagens’s Body Worlds and the competing exhibits, demonstrating a powerful public interest in anatomy. This interest is not new. People have always been fascinated by human anatomy. They have satisfied this curiosity by attending public dissections, visiting anatomy museums, and, most recently, attending Body Worlds and Bodies Revealed. The ...

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7. What Would Dr. William Hunter Think about Bodies Revealed?

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pp. 73-78

Every culture has conventions about portraying and exhibiting the dead human body. Historically, what could be shown of the body—where it was displayed, how it was represented, and and who got to see it—has always been a complex social issue.1 ...

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8. Vive la differ

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pp. 79-89

In the past few years, the myriad anatomic exhibitions sweeping the United States have come under increasing scrutiny for dubious ethical practices and a rampant commercialization of human remains preserved through plastination. Curiously, however, the enterprise that started it all in the first place, Gunther von Hagens’s Body Worlds, seems all but exempt from this criticism. After being ...

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9. Normative Objections to Posing Plastinated Bodies: An Ethics of Bodily Repose

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pp. 90-100

Upon learning that the Bodies Revealed exhibit is coming to town, colleagues gather around a conference table at the Center for Practical Bioethics and a spirited dialogue erupts. One of our staff members has been recruited to serve on an ethics advisory group for the science museum sponsor. We discuss the various ethical controversies that surround this exhibit. Our moral hackles are ...

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10. For Ronnie and Donnie

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pp. 101-104

When I was growing up in the late 1950s and early 1960s, there was a special day each October. On that particular day children across the city were dismissed from school and given a free pass to attend the State Fair of Texas—the largest state fair in the country. My friends and I, unaccompanied by adults, went to Fair Park in Dallas, Texas, to enjoy the fair. ...

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11. The Creeping Illusionizing of Identity from Neurobiology to Newgenics

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pp. 105-114

Body Worlds: The Anatomical Exhibition of Real Human Bodies—Gunther von Hagens’s hugely popular show of flying, jumping, chess-playing plastinates—has captured our attention at a peculiar moment in both the history of art and the progress of science. These “real human bodies” are rendered dry and odorless by a preservation process that replaces fluids with silicon rubber. Wet bodies and ...

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12. Craft and Narrative in Body Worlds: An Aesthetic Consideration

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pp. 115-123

Dr. von Hagens has not asked us to evaluate him as an artist. In fact, he has not asked us to evaluate him on any terms. Like Dr. Kevorkian, he seems offended by any inference that he may be courting our, or anyone’s, approval. Instead, he poses himself as a reality in the landscape that we must deal with, not pass judgment upon. He seems rather like a refugee from an Eastern Bloc state who ...

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Afterword: Plastination’s Share of Mind

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pp. 124-128

It would be unjust to the breadth of the positions and insights of our multidisciplinary contributors to close this book with an attempt to synthesize or summarize the observations presented. These twelve essays suggest that the issues raised by the plastination of bodies reach more deeply into the center of human concerns than one might at first expect. ...


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pp. 129-137

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Suggested Further Reading

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pp. 139

Bertman S. One Breath Apart: Facing Dissection. Baywood Publishing, MacDonald H. Human Remains: Dissection and Its Histories. Yale Univer-Montross C. Body of Work: Meditations on Mortality from the Human Moore W. The Knife Man: Blood, Body Snatching, and the Birth of Modern Richardson R. Death, Dissection, and the Destitute. University of Chicago ...


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pp. 141-145

E-ISBN-13: 9781421403571
E-ISBN-10: 1421403579
Print-ISBN-13: 9781421402710
Print-ISBN-10: 1421402718

Page Count: 160
Publication Year: 2011