Sex, death and 'Bodies'

An exhibit of corpses is back for a second tour of Seattle, where it has been a huge hit. What are we really experiencing when we wander the gallery of the dead?
Crosscut archive image.

Image from Andreas Vesalius' <i>De Humani Corporis Fabrica,</i> 1543

An exhibit of corpses is back for a second tour of Seattle, where it has been a huge hit. What are we really experiencing when we wander the gallery of the dead?

I grew up surrounded by body parts.

My father was a physician, a pathologist and a medical illustrator, and he worked largely out of labs and studios in our family basement. His medical book collection lined the walls of my parents' bedroom. My sister and I spent hours examining pictures and texts in such glorious tomes as Gould & Pyle's Anomalies and Curiosities of Medicine, a veritable freak show of medical history, from two-headed humans to the miseries of elephantiasis of the scrotum, fully illustrated.

In the basement, there were human skulls, reassembled bones mounted and showing the nervous system of the hand, weird rubber replicas of the digestive system. In a large ceramic crock lived a human stomach, white like a giant, waterlogged noodle. I used to sneak kids into the basement and whip off the crock's lid for 5 cents a person to give them a gander at a genuine human stomach. The smell of the formaldehyde that wafted up was so strong that most fled in horror without ever seeing it, but I, a grade-school P.T. Barnum, had made my candy money for the week.

The walls were lined with other specimens, mostly from heart research. Human and animal arteries flattened and stretched out like dried animal skins, resting in jars of fluids. When Woodland Park Zoo's Bobo the gorilla died in 1968, a piece of his heart wound up in my father's lab for scrutiny. The stuffed and preserved Bobo can still be seen in the basement of the Museum of History and Industry.

The most visible guest, however, was Mr. Bones, a full human skeleton that hung like a drycleaned suit in the corner of one room. Mr. Bones was not even a Mr., according to my father. Having examined it, he believed it was a woman from India whose corpse had been cleaned and put back together for medical research and teaching. We never really discussed who she was or where she came from or why she had wound up in our home instead of burned, buried, or scattered on the Ganges as her cultural customs might have dictated. Mr. Bones, or Ms. Bones, simply was, and my father and mother (who was herself a nurse) delighted in teaching us about anatomy by pointing to various bones and telling us their names. My parents used to urge my sisters and me to clean our plates because of "the starving people in India." I assumed the skeleton was one of many such unfortunates, lucky enough to be a teaching tool in the afterlife. We were taught that it's an honor to be of use after death, as an organ donor, specimen, or cadaver.

Health and medicine are largely about death, staving it off, but also learning from it. My father was devoted to making medical knowledge more accessible, clearer, understandable to the lay person. Together with our family pediatrician, my parents even co-authored the 1960 children's classic, A Visit to the Doctor, a piece of propaganda designed to make kids respect medical authority and allay their fears of physicians. In A Visit to the Doctor, booster shots don't even hurt. I knew that wasn't true from first-hand experience, and I always got the sense my folks were a bit ashamed of the book for not being more realistic. The little boy in the book was not encouraged to donate his mortal remains to science, but I imagine my parents could have made that case in a sequel.

Visit to the Doctor was a sham, but I had also seen graphic realism. I remember that, when I was way too young to see such things, my father created color photo panels for a medical exhibition downtown. It featured graphic photographs of a man's face as it healed over time, and with surgery, from a suicide attempt with a gun that left the victim alive but with most of his mouth shot away. It was hideous, but also an extraordinary lesson in healing: that someone so mangled could recover was a kind of revelation to me. Such gore is seen routinely nowadays by the CSI generation.

Medical gore is always that: fascinating and revelatory. There is something lurid about it, but also instructive. The Seattle "Bodies" exhibit is back in town (through March) after its successful run here a couple of years ago, and it embodies the best and worst of our fascination with graphic displays of corpses and body parts (they of course have a Facebook page). The appeal is the chance to see "actual human specimens." And this is a centuries old fascination, as old as the medical profession itself, and certainly ritualized and popularized in the past few hundred years as medical knowledge has exploded.

The creation of the printed book allowed for the dramatic renderings of body parts, gained from secret dissections of executed criminals, or corpses that had been stolen for the purpose. Prints in the Renaissance showed men and women with their abdomens open, happily displaying their innards. Look at the 16th century illustrations of Vesalius and you'll see figures posed exactly as you might in "Bodies." During the Enlightenment, dissection became a chance to reveal and document the workings of the human machine, the "curious engine" mentioned by Robert Boyle.

The books fueled interest in people seeing live demonstrations of bodies being opened, peeled and cut apart. The operating room literally was a "theater" in which men of science, and often the voyeuristic public, could see corpses reduced to their mysterious parts. Histories of dissection often note the subtext of sexual buzz of people seeing naked bodies while the living were dressed in the heavy dark garb of a Rembrandt painting.

Some scholars have noted that public dissections were a way of demonstrating power and dominance, of asserting medical authority and reinforcing the power of scientific knowledge. Think of the hotties who perform autopsies on the various CSI shows: Forensic investigation is sexy, and always rights wrongs. (The power of this is demonstrated in what is known as the "CSI Effect," a public overconfidence in police science.) Sex and death are old partners.

The "Bodies" exhibits show off remarkable technological feats of preservation of corpses — people who have been cut in half vertically, as if by chain saw, or who've had their organs perfectly "plastinated" and embalmed for us to examine. People today are sensitive to where the bodies we gawk at come from: Are they criminals, the indigent? Most are "unclaimed" and from China, which is the new "India" as a source of corpses. Before that, Medieval Europeans were once obsessed with inhaling "mummy dust" for their health and harvested the bodies of dead Egyptians.

There are clearly race issues involved: The bodies exhibited are often talked about as being unwanted and from places that have people in abundance. I often wonder if "Bodies" exhibits would be as popular if it were your grandma or grandpa from Akron up there, known and named, the all-American white people who died from too much beef, corn, and Jell-o salad. Such exhibits are more palatable if we don't identify with the corpses on display, if they remain anonymous and foreign, if we're able to convince ourselves that something wasted or profane has been put to good use. We can be glad that a homeless person or criminal or diseased individual is contributing to society, making lemonade from the lemon of death.

For all the high-toned talk of teaching, such displays would not bring in big money if there wasn't something at least slightly taboo about them, or controversy, if we weren't seeing something forbidden or too much for us to digest. Seeing humans skinned, flensed and posed playing basketball is bizarre, creepy and kind of thrilling. It's also largely unnecessary. High-tech digital scans available online have made widely available much of the detail anatomy. One female corpse and one male corpse, an anatomical Adam and Eve if you will, have been used to form a library to educate all the world through detailed body images. No need for "Bodies" if you're looking for an anatomy lesson. Other than students and researchers, who would pay to look at the wafer-thin cross-sections of a human body? A posed cadaver brings in the crowds.

One reason is the freak-show element wrapped in the mantle of being educational. The "Bodies" organizers claim to have enlightened some 150,000 school children. Another is that it makes the viewers feel more alive in the presence of death, or a sanitized version of it (no aroma of the morgue here). These exhibits can have a momento mori effect, reminding us of our mortality. But the liveliness of the dead (dancing, playing sports) and our engagement with them outside the funeral parlor and the casket, somehow makes them more part of the living. There's a reason the body snatchers of 19th century were also called "Resurrection Men." The bodies of "Bodies" promise a kind of life after death that defies the usual cremation or burial, the secreting of death in vaults, tombs, cryo-chambers and urns.

The strange "life after death" for cadavers is a consolation for the failures of medicine itself, which cannot ultimately defeat death. As one 17th century anatomist/poet wrote upon the death of her brother (also an anatomist), "[W]e cou'd find nought in all our art/That cou'd prolong the motion of his heart."

"Bodies" is not alone in putting human bodies on display for our amusement. Ye Old Curiosity Shoppe on the Seattle waterfront has its mummies, notably Sylvester, once speculated to be the sun-dried remains of John Wilkes Booth. Philosopher Jeremy Bentham's fully dressed remains sit in a glass display case at University College London reminding us that the corpse of the proponent of utilitarianism still has a use. The churches of Europe are filled with the bits and pieces of various Saints, displayed often in elaborate, jeweled cases so we can admire the toe bone of one of the blessed.

The "Bodies" exhibit bodies are sacred relics of a kind, not simply important as a science lesson, but for the thrills, shivers and awe that can be induced from beyond the grave. You charge 5 cents, open the crock, people get goose bumps and scream, and everyone goes away happy, feeling alive. If you learn something in the process, well that's good too.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.