Putting The Dead On Display


Daniel Engber visits the Plastinarium, the permanent home to specimens used in the wildly popular traveling show, Body Worlds:

However else one might describe the Body Worlds exhibits—as science or as flimflam—they have done more than any other modern spectacle to bring the human corpse into view. For the first time in recent memory, tens of millions of people in the developed world have had the chance to see cadavers on parade, to view the lifeless bodies of their fellow beings without the intermediation of fear or shame.

As the architect of this experience, and as its tireless proponent, [Gunther von Hagens] has refigured death for modern sensibilities. A plastinated corpse isn’t pickled, like a body in a casket. It doesn’t stink, like cadavers at the morgue. It doesn’t rot or bloat or molder. To see one doesn’t make you sad or sick; it doesn’t fill you with anxiety. The experience is something else instead—an encounter with a memento mori that’s both dry and durable and can be split and peeled without disgust. It’s death denuded of its most gruesome elements, the body as a finely engineered machine.

(Above: “The Lassoer” from the “Body Worlds Vital” exhibit. Photo from the Greater Louisville Medical Society Flickr.)