Monday, March 13, 2006

Poor Yorick

When I was growing up, my parents tried to protect us from the mere idea of death. They did not speak of it. I never went to a funeral before I was in my twenties. I never saw a dead human body until much later. Since I could read the newspaper, I certainly knew a lot about it. At a young age I found a book of combat photography hidden in the storage room. It was extremely well done with very high-resolution images of battlefields and towns littered with the dead of World War I – soldiers and civilians. I am familiar with similar photography pioneered by Matthew Brady during the Civil War. Vietnam was also a source for images of death and violence. However true to life, though, these are just photographs.

I don’t know whether my parents’ protectiveness was a function of personal idiosyncrasies, or of Protestant fastidiousness, or an antiseptic sense of modernity. My wife, raised as a Catholic, was not similarly protected. As a result of this background, I suppose, I have a shock response to death, human or animals. I’m not immune to dead and dying insects either. I inure myself to this shock. I believe, intellectually, that the dead retain no connection to the living. Whatever lived there is gone. I try to make myself accept this emotionally, as well, but I’m not completely successful. I believe insects and fish do not feel pain and anxiety the way mammals do, but I still pity them.

The function of funerals is to help the living deal with the loss. I don’t believe the dead derive any benefit from the procedure. My father thought the same. He felt that funerals were an extravagance. He attended dutifully when called upon, but did not care about his own. He directed that his body be cremated and that no stone be laid. I have told my wife that I don’t care what happens. My preference, which I can’t imagine will be honored, is to be run through a wood chipper and plowed under with the other nitrates. Then again, my body might be polluted with strange chemicals upon my demise, antibiotics and whatnot. Maybe it wouldn’t be such a good idea. Nevertheless, I find the idea of coffins and interments to be unnatural and tainted with superstition.

It’s really not an easy problem. Well, I’ve thought, maybe I could just be plasticized and put on display like Jeremy Bentham, for educational purposes.


That’s exactly what has happened with a few dozen people, now on display at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia. A man by the name ofGunther von Hagens invented, in 1977, a way to chemically stabilize bodies using a process called "plastination". The display he subsequently put together, the Body Worlds exhibition, has been on tour since 1995. It hasn’t been universally admired. He has been driven out of Germany and China by repeated legal challenges and accusations of ethically questionable behavior, but he has found a comfortable home for his exhibition in the US.

I took my daughter to see the show a month ago, knowing that I wouldn’t do too well. She wanted to go, and, right or wrong, I do not want to repeat the patterns of my parents.

It starts off pretty tamely. A couple of bones with labels. It becomes quickly and progressively more and more challenging, medically explicit and artistically outlandish. There are cunning displays of the inner workings of the body, informative explorations of diseases we are subject to (some of which I have suffered from), some rather explicit anti-smoking messages, a distressing display of the stages of pregnancy. But mostly, there are astonishing depictions of the body, using the bodies of real ex-people, engaged in the physical pursuits we take for granted.

I had to sit down a couple of times. My knees were acting up. My daughter was not ready to leave when I was. I spent a lot of time in the museum store, which is a little too commercial, oriented toward trinkets and jokes. I listened to the med students from Penn who were chattering with excitement. My daughter was positively exhilarated.

I dreamed a lot about it afterwards. I still do a little. I feel, despite my qualms about Mr. von Hagens, that I have been enriched. I’m not really sure how.


This Sunday’s edition of the Philadelphia Inquirer has an opinion piece (not yet available online) by Anita L. Allen, a professor of law and philosophy at the University of Pennsylvania, specializing in ethical issues. She is puzzled and somewhat miffed by the lack of reaction among Americans. She is concerned about disrespect for the Dead. She took offense at a man, skinless, as all the bodies are, wearing a hat, perhaps Gunther’s hat. She was upset about the sexually provocative position of a pregnant woman. (I did not find it so.) She felt that we were somehow failing these departed individuals by ogling their actual and perhaps sacred flesh.

I have to admit that I am puzzled myself. You are talking about a nation that will spend 65 years, thousands of man-hours and dollars, looking for a scrap of bone or a tooth or a smear of DNA to mark the passing of a soldier in a distant war. And yet, there are no protests, no angry litigation, no mobs with torches and pitchforks trying to dismantle the Body Worlds. How can these seemingly contradictory responses both be true? I don’t really understand it, and I guess I don’t really understand myself, because I find that I’m proud, as an American, of both responses.

3/13/2006 1:14 PM

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At Tuesday, March 14, 2006 10:24:00 PM, Blogger Steve said...

Your daughter must be a pretty neat kid to have wanted to go, and to have appreciated, Body Worlds. I see I have until the middle of July to go see it with my son in Denver.

The wood chipper idea would work, but I kind of like the idea of just being laid out in the wilderness somewhere. Since that's not likely to be allowed, donating my remains to the Forensic Anthropology Center has some appeal. They'll take what's left over after any organs that might be useful have been harvested.

The last thing I want to do is to temporarily take up space in an irrigated, manicured cemetary, and especially not in an above-ground mausoleum. But people are funny. When my Mom died it fell to me to make funeral arrangements. I did what she would have wanted, and picked out a perfectly fine, attractive, wooden box that was the cheapest thing the klepticians had available. I could have spent ten times that and some people would still have given me flack for not spending 20 times more for the polished stainless steel and silk box.

My wife dealt with funeral houses in her capacity as a VA claims adjudicator a few years ago. She has such disrespect for that crowd.

At Wednesday, March 15, 2006 12:30:00 AM, Blogger jj mollo said...

She is, thanks. Did you see her essay on earthworms?

I really like the woodchipper idea, notwithstanding Saddam's application of the device. At least you know that they won't bury you alive. My daughter tells me that in the old days, when bodies were buried without preparation, they used to have a little bell above the ground with a string leading into the coffin. If somebody was buried prematurely, they could ring for room service I guess.

It would be nice if they could get some use from my organs. It's noted on my drivers license. Good picture too. The FAC sounds like a good option. That's where they train the future murder mystery novelists, eh?

At Wednesday, March 15, 2006 12:46:00 AM, Blogger Frank Warner said...

I haven't seen Body Worlds yet, and I have reservations (the kind that would keep me out, not get me in). It just seems creepy.

Anyway, JJ, I like the way you describe your mixed feelings.

The weird thing is, if they called it an art show, it would be abuse of a corpse. But stick it in the Franklin Institute, and it's an acceptable scientific exhibit.

At Friday, March 17, 2006 12:09:00 PM, Blogger jj mollo said...

Drawing lines between categories of things is always a challenge. I think it really is scientifically motivated, but while they were at it, they decided to make it beautiful. It is the cognitive dissonance between categories of things that makes it distressing, which I guess is a good definition of art.

At Saturday, March 18, 2006 3:48:00 PM, Blogger collissimon said...

I do find valorisation of the dead interesting. Reading a book recently about nationalism and was struck by the faith we put in the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

Every Remembrance Sunday, we lay wreaths etc. at the foot of what is clearly a British/French/German/Canadian etc. soldier. Yet the reality is probably quite different. Not content to valorise the dead, we have to give it a nationalist emphasis too.


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