Displaying Death

Human Dignity in Question at Body World Exhibits

By Father John Flynn, LC

ROME, JUNE 22, 2008 (Zenit.org).- Displays of preserved human bodies are drawing large numbers of spectators. For a few years now Gunthor von Hagens has been touring the world with his Body Worlds exhibitions.

According to a June 8 article published by the Los Angeles Times, more than 8,000 people worldwide have pledged their bodies to him. In a process called plastination, the liquids and fats of the dead bodies are removed and they are filled with plastic.

The Los Angeles Times reported that early in June, 115 future body donors met von Hagens to discuss their donations. The article notes that after starting with an exhibition in the United States in 2004, there are now four Body Worlds tours rotating among museums in North America.

The popular exhibitions have not, however, gone unchallenged. Twenty-one members of Congress have sponsored a bill to prohibit the importation of plastinated bodies into the United States, reported ABC News on May 21.

“This is a human rights issue about affording human dignities to people around the world,” declared Representative Todd Akin of Missouri.

One of the concerns over the bodies stems from claims that some of the bodies used by Bodies the Exhibition, a similar display managed by Premier Exhibitions, might be the remains of executed Chinese prisoners.

“China’s record on human rights should give us pause in any issue involving human remains imported from that country,” said Representative Mike Turner, a co-sponsor of the bill.

Shortly after, Premier Exhibitions admitted it could not guarantee that the bodies on display were not those of prisoners, the New York Times reported May 30.

The admission was part of a settlement between the company and the New York State attorney general’s office. Under the settlement the exhibit must display a statement explaining that it is not able to confirm that the bodies being displayed are not prisoners who might have been victims of torture and execution.

Horror show

A number of bishops have spoken out criticizing the body exhibitions. Anglican Bishop Nigel McCulloch of Manchester, England, condemned it as a “kind of freaky horror show,” reported the BBC on Feb. 5.

Speaking about Body Worlds 4, displayed at Manchester’s Museum of Science and Industry, he said it “diminishes the value of people.”

Despite the controversy over the exhibitions, the BBC article noted that the shows have attracted 25 million visitors globally.

In Edmonton, Alberta, a statement by Archbishop Richard Smith, also signed by Bishop David Motiuk of the Ukrainian Eparchy of Edmonton, advised Catholics who might go to the Body Worlds exhibit to “keep in mind that each body is that of a unique individual loved by God and others,” reported the Edmonton Journal on May 26. The exhibition was scheduled to open June 13 at the Telus World of Science.

“These are bodies of people,” said Archbishop Smith. “These are bodies that lived, that loved. […] It’s not just an object to be gawked at as an object of curiosity, but to be honored.”

According to the article, the archbishop is not prohibiting Catholics from going to the exhibit. “But we’d hope, as Catholics, they’ll come to an informed judgment on the basis of what they believe,” said Archbishop Smith.

Failing to respect

Protests also came from Cincinnati Archbishop Daniel Pilarczyk, reported the local Enquirer newspaper Feb. 1. He sent instructions to the elementary and secondary schools of the archdiocese saying they should not plan field trips to the exhibit because “it seems to me that the use of human bodies in this way fails to respect the persons involved.”

Neighboring Covington Bishop Roger Foys released a similar statement, banning Catholic schools from going to the show, reported the Kentucky Post on Jan. 31.

The exhibition “has been and continues to be the source of ethical concerns, particularly with regard to human dignity, human rights, and respect for the human body,” he said in a statement. “The dignity of the human being, body and soul, is never to be taken lightly.”

These sentiments were shared by Archbishop Joseph Naumann of Kansas City in Kansas and Bishop Robert Finn of Kansas City-St. Joseph.

They issued a joint statement saying the exhibition did not respect the individuals whose bodies are on display, reported the Kansas City Star on Feb. 26.

“Catholic moral teaching regards the human person as a unity of soul and body, spirit and matter” and as such “more than just a vessel for the soul,” explained the statement by the two prelates. “The Church’s concern for human dignity extends to the body even after the soul is no longer present.”

Reflecting on the issue, Father Michael Seger, a professor of moral theology at the Athenaeum of Ohio/Mount St. Mary Seminary of the West, drew attention to the values at stake.

The human person is a unity of body and spirit, he pointed out in the Cincinatti Enquirer newspaper Feb. 1. We love and suffer in our bodies and the exhibition of the preserved corpses “rip a person from the context of her or his life story,” he said. “They stand before us sadly anonymous: not mourned and not reverenced.”

“The plasticized bodies displayed for anatomical voyeurism belong to a person who deserves better,” Father Seger urged. “We are a society that prides itself on protecting and promoting human dignity, so we ask if this exhibit respects that noble goal.”

The controversy over the Body Worlds exhibitions comes at a time when a growing number of people are choosing ever more bizarre ways to dispose of their bodies or cremated ashes.

A Feb. 4 article in the Washington Times described how the ashes of one couple were placed in an artificial reef off the coast of Florida. Larry and Sue Barca apparently had a great love for fish and nature.

An article Nov. 14 in the Los Angeles Times described how people scatter ashes at Disneyland and public parks.


The Church does not have objections to donating body parts for medical purposes. The Catechism of the Catholic Church says, “The free gift of organs after death is legitimate and can be meritorious” (No. 2301).

Regarding respect for the human body after death, there are useful guidelines on this in a document published by the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments.

In the December 2001 “Directory on Popular Piety and the Liturgy,” it says regarding funeral ceremonies: “[I]t is necessary for the body of the deceased, which was the Temple of the Holy Spirit, to be treated with the utmost respect (No. 253).

“Christian piety has always regarded burial as the model for the faithful to follow since it clearly displays how death signifies the total destruction of the body” (No. 254).

As a result, the document explains, “The practice eschews meanings that can be associated with mummification or embalming or even with cremation.

“Burial recalls the earth from which man comes (cf. Gen 2, 6) and to which he returns (cf. Gen 3, 19; Sir 17,1), and also recalls the burial of Christ, the grain which, fallen on the earth, brought forth fruit in plenty (cf. John 12, 24).”

The instruction does acknowledge that cremation is permitted, but at the same time insists that the ashes should be buried and not kept at home. The growing disrespect for dead bodies is a reflection of the loss of faith in our spiritual condition and destiny, and another warning of what can happen when we lose sight of God.

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