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Show us your corpse: The Body Worlds Circus

By Evelyn Tsitas - posted Monday, 21 February 2011


Somewhere in the world, a plastinated corpse show is open to the public, or about to open. Such is the enduring appeal of the death peep that it is only fitting its creator, Gunther von Hagens - aka Dr Death - has decreed his own ailing body will join the ranks of the embalmed.

Dr Death is dying. The announcement in January that von Hagens has been diagnosed with Parkinson's disease and is planning to put his own corpse on display in his controversial Body Worlds exhibitions has been deemed "at least aesthetically right" by Professor Nick Bostrom, the director of the Future of Humanity Institute at the University of Oxford. (The New York Times, Jan 5)

Von Hagens, the German anatomist and artist, championed the use of the dead as entertainment when he invented a technique called plastination in 1977. The process replaces water and fat with plastic for preservation purposes, which means corpses do not ooze, decay, or smell or display any real sense of the body's actual texture.

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His shows involve corpses in bizarre positions and have been to more than 50 venues around the world and attracted up to 26 million people.

Plastinated corpse exhibitions, such as the Gunther von Hagens' Body Worlds exhibition opening at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago on March 18, and the Amazing Bodies Exhibition in Australia on March 5 at the Adelaide Event & Exhibition (not associated with Dr. von Hagens or Body Worlds), are touted as educational but also have the distinct whiff of sawdust.

Indeed, promotion for The Amazing Bodies exhibition invites people to ignite their curiosity "and uncover the mysteries of modern mummification ". In the mid-19th century, the aristocracy delighted in holding parties with a difference, and mummy-unwrapping soirees were all the rage. A formal invitation from 1852 states: 'Lord Londesborough, At Home, 144 Piccadilly. A Mummy From Thebes to be unrolled at half-past Two'. (The London Evening Standard)

In the Eighteenth century there was such a desperate shortage of corpses in London and Edinburgh, where private anatomy tuition was beginning to thrive as a lucrative business, that corpses became a profitable commodity. Fears about corpse-theft were rife, with the wealthy building special cages (mort safes) over their graves to stop the grave robbers. With the 21st century demand for plastinated corpse shows - and the subsequent demand for bodies and body parts - perhaps the mort safe will be revived.

Body World's organisers say that "unlike other exhibitions that use unclaimed and found bodies, the bodies in Body Worlds stem from the body donation program managed by the Institute for Plastination in Heidelberg." It is a distinction Body Worlds are keen to make, as other plastinated corpse shows (there are 19 copycat anatomical displays worldwide) have run into problems. ("Controversial 'Dead Bodies' Exhibit at The Seaport Reopens", NYDailyNews.com, Feb 4)

Despite valiant efforts of the exhibition promoters to boost the educational content of the shows, von Hagens' plastination method can provoke a prurient response among the modern corpse viewer.

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Body parts have been stolen from exhibitions; in 2009, a 13-week-old “plastinated” fetus was stolen from a Gunther von Hagens' Body Worlds exhibition at the California Science Center. In 2007, a section of a preserved ankle was lifted from the Amazing Bodies Exhibition in Melbourne.

Will anyone make off with part of the plastinated founder himself when Dr Death's own corpse eventually goes on display?

Jane Desmond, a professor of anthropology at the University of Illinois, has researched the way society tolerates - and even celebrates - the public display of human corpses.  She says that the posed Body Worlds corpses provide viewers with fictionalized images of death. (www.medicalnewstoday.com, Feb 8)

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About the Author

Dr Evelyn Tsitas works at RMIT University and has an extensive background in journalism (10 years at the Herald Sun) and communications. As well as crime fiction and horror, she writes about media, popular culture, parenting and Gothic horror and the arts and society in general. She likes to take her academic research to the mass media and to provoke debate.

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