Making matters distinctly worse here at the Body Worlds 2 exhibit, a bird has just smashed loudly into the window right in front of me and dropped to the forest floor outside the Ontario Science Centre.
I am a voyeur in the land of death.
A few feet into the exhibit, I arrive at a complete skeleton, titled The Handshake. Posed with one arm outstretched, it retains a few muscles like dried shiny meat and, oddly, still has its ears. I feel a slight chill.
In another series of glass cases, I find real hips and artificial replacements and a skull with a brain like a half-shelled soft-boiled egg with a jaw. The brain, I learn, grows so large it ripples and furrows in the skull, and spread out covers an area of 1.5 square metres.
I start thinking about my own brain and naturally begin wondering who this tissue once belonged to. How did he or she die?
Anatomist Gunther von Hagens, who invented this romp among plasticized human carcasses that some find morally reprehensible, is determined we should never know. He discovered this form of preservation, called plastination, in 1977 at the University of Heidelberg. After receiving some recognition for his work in medical circles, he put together a show for the public that started touring in 1995. Now seen by 17 million people worldwide, it has been widely criticized for desecrating the dignity of the dead.
Von Hagens, a physician, believes that knowledge of body parts should be democratized and sees himself in the tradition of Renaissance anatomy, when rogue scientists had to dig up bodies to advance their learning and autopsies were quietly held. Western medical science has alienated us from our own physicality, he says. The professionalism of the medical establishment has been, he says, "a conspiracy against the laity."
During the press conference, the doctor, in his ever-present black-rimmed hat and a red scarf, explains that there is now a waiting list of people wanting to be plastinated, and all bodies here were either donated by universities or by individuals who indicated in their lifetimes that they wished to become marble for von Hagens's sculptures. He even did his own best friend.
Over 400 universities worldwide now practise plastination, including Queens in Kingston. The technique involves replacing on the cellular level all the fluids in the body with various types of polymers that stiffen, allowing corpses to be posed and sculpted, with various layers of body tissue exposed or removed. Flesh retains its hue and shape but loses all its odour, making perfect specimens for the study of anatomy.
Only I am not an anatomist.
I am, to a certain extent, having the med student experience he thinks we should all have. At one point, I find myself completely engrossed in comparing healthy ovaries with those inflamed by ovarian cancer, and admiring the tiny little tubes that connect the kidneys to the bladder.
But unlike a med student, I am looking at the deceased posed to mollify us, to win our approval through clichéd tableaux.
The Man Of Leisure, for example, reclines, hands behind his head, and stares at the ceiling with lidless eyes. Ski Jumper, who wears skis and has kept his eyelids, has been sliced open vertically, his outer musculature split to reveal his inner organs and his shoulder muscles pulled out like wings.
It's as though Madame Tussaud hired designer H.R. Giger from the 1979 film Alien to open up shop in a medical school.
Posed as soccer players and ballet dancers, the bodies seem foolish. Angelina Whalley, the director of the Institute of Plastination, who's married to von Hagens, patiently explains that there's no way to avoid posing a cadaver. "Even to put a body in its 'natural state,' lying on a table, is a decision." How, then, should the bodies be set up?
The question knaws at me as I wander past the shocking display of a woman whose legs have been removed at the hip and crossed to form an X. Her skull and outer torso have been split and pulled open in a V-shape to reveal her insides. It's like the difference between looking at a word and a broken pile of letters. Needless to say, her faceless expression is not one that connotes the serenity we hope to see in the dearly departed.
I'm fine with organs and bones, but the more complete the bodies are, the harder it is to appreciate them anatomically. Each demands the recognition of having lived particular life. More shocking than the bodies themselves is their de-individuation, the absence of their personhood.
Why can't we learn about the lives of these donors, many of them young, and hear the stories of how they died? Von Hagens explains that about half the donors agreed that their names could be published, but he withholds them because he wants us to see ourselves in these bodies, not the people they once were. If we read their stories, he tells us, "tears will come," explaining that the teaching of anatomy requires clinical detachment.
Admittedly, I am overly sentimental, but the problem is not that the exhibition upsets the dignity of the dead. Rather it lies in Body Worlds' fundamental internal contradiction. Von Hagens wants lay people to understand anatomy clinically, the way scientists do, and yet expects that we cannot respond to his creations both as once-living people and as anatomical education tools. But we can and we should.
This show isn't just an anatomy lesson. We need to come to terms with death, the sanitization of which has become a fatal flaw in our culture. As conspiracies against the laity go, this one cuts to the bone.
It's education in mortality we need more than tutoring in mere tissue, organ and muscle.