Exquisite Corpses

I have seen dead people. Lots of them. I have seen their insides ripped out. I have seen them dissected every which way imaginable. In addition, I have examined diseased lungs, clogged arteries, arthritic knees, and babies in the uterus. However, after having examined literally hundreds of corpses rather than feel nauseous I feel more than a bit awed.

Fortunately, I did not have to visit a morgue to see such unusual sights. Instead, I visited the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago, Illinois. There on exhibition through early September is Gunther von Hagens’ The Body Worlds. This exhibition is full of human corpses, all of which have been “plasticized”. In 1977, Hagens invented a process that turns corpses into objects suitable for dissection and easy exhibition. There is no smell of formaldehyde or decaying flesh to offend visitors. Perhaps that is why the exhibit also feels a bit surreal. The plasticization process replaces body fluids and fat with special reactive polymers that leaves everything exactly and completely preserved. It allows human tissue and bone to be sliced, diced or just carefully exposed. The results are corpses (or more often, portions of corpses) that are preserved far better than any pharaoh could have hoped for. These corpses have achieved a weird form of immortality. Altogether, the exhibit shows over 200 corpses, or portions thereof.

The result is an exhibit that is both unique and a bit mind boggling. Thanks to Hagen, the rest of us now have the ability to view the human body like surgeons and coroners do. Peer into the inner ear canal and see the tiniest bones in the human body. Examine the brain stem from various perspectives. See the many intricate and tiny arteries that make up the human face. Linger over muscle groups pulled open for your inspection. Follow nerves from the brain to the tip of your toe.

I thought I would be squicked out. I thought I would be nauseous. Instead, I found the exhibit fascinating. I agree with my wife’s assessment: this exhibit is also art. However, it can be a bit unnerving.

After spending at least an hour in the exhibit, I find myself with mixed feelings. On the one hand, the exhibit rekindled my fear of death (never too far away since I am 48). The exhibit is undeniable proof that we are all mortal. We are bones, blood and tissue all intricately arranged and working in near perfect harmony. Except for our sex organs, under our skin we are all the same. The exhibit makes clear that our bodies are marvels of engineering and complexity. Yet they are also undeniably finite. It is a marvel that our bodies work so well for so many years without so much as a pit stop. Having now examined clogged arteries first hand, I feel the sudden and almost panicky need to change my dietary habits and start taking statin drugs. Yet for what? While we can extend the length or quality of our lives, our bodies are literally born to die.

On the other hand, you too may find that this level of intimacy with the inside of our bodies to be something of a spiritual experience. It is difficult to see how intricately we are engineered and not feel, well, just a tad closer to God than when you arrived. For those who believe in souls, our bodies seem like ideal vessels for connection to the environment.

The Body Worlds then is something like rubbernecking past a massive car crash. Once inside it is irresistible. No diagrams in medical textbooks can truly allow us to get such a holistic perspective of our bodies. If the exhibition comes to your city, I think you will find the entrance fee money well spent.

One thought on “Exquisite Corpses

  1. Mark

    I read once about a Buddhist technique that involves literally staring at a pile of bones for hours on end as a reminder of the inevitability of death.

    I think that serves as a real reminder that today’s troubles aren’t important – not worth stressing about things, because in the long run…

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