Life Studies


Our Daily Correspondent


A subway ad for the latest “Body Worlds” exhibition.

With the passage of time come certain revelations. Sometimes these are melancholy; people you love are aging, your window for having a family is shrinking, you will never again know the euphoria of youth. Others are welcome. It is comforting to know there will always be more good books to read than there is time in the average life. And I know I can die happily—and will—without ever going into space, swimming with dolphins, or visiting any one of the endless iterations of that “Body Worlds” exhibition.

When the first such exhibition made its grand tour (in the manner of young gentlemen of a past age), it was a novelty. Vaguely shocking, even—remember the ethics review? Everyone was amazed at the artistry of the preservation. One could lend credence to the creators’ arguments that it taught valuable anatomical lessons and educated the public about biology and physiology and, in so doing, helped encourage healthy lifestyle choices. Imagine how much effort such a show might have saved Michelangelo—to say nothing of grave-robbing Scottish medical students!

As to the bodies themselves, they are all given freely and maybe even joyfully. The web site explains,

The BODY WORLDS exhibitions rely on the generosity of body donors; individuals who requested that, upon their death, their bodies could be used for educational purposes in the exhibition. All the whole-body plastinates and the majority of the specimens are from these body donors; only some organs, fetuses, and specific specimens that show unusual conditions come from old anatomical collections and morphological institutes. As agreed upon by the body donors, their identities and causes of death are not disclosed. The exhibition focuses on the nature of our bodies, not on telling personal information. Currently there are more than 14,000 donors registered in the body donation program of the Institute for Plastination. For more information please visit the body donation section. BODY WORLDS exhibitions are based on an established body donation program through which the body donors specifically request that their bodies could be used in a public exhibition after their deaths.

But wandering past an urbane specimen displayed on a “Body Worlds” poster the other day, I couldn’t help but wonder how much agency the donor had. Say I died with intact musculature and wanted to donate my corpse for educational purposes and be preserved via the magic of Plastination. So far so good. Could I specify that I did not want my body dressed vaguely like a naked Truman Capote on Saint Patrick’s Day, and placed in the map seat (the worst seat of all) on what looks like a 1 Train? After all, as a friend of mine observed, one of the primary benefits of dying is never again having to ride the subway.

It is highly irresponsible of me to critique a show I have never visited; rather like piling on The Death of Klinghoffer without having so much as glanced at the libretto. And certainly, stripping death of its terror can only be a good thing—the American way of death, as we know, is a modern phenomenon. In a sense, “Body Worlds” (and its siblings and offspring) are logical offshoots of time-honored phenomena like the Mütter Museum, or even Victorian postmortem photography. We are never not macabre. And that, too, is comforting.