A dead man, flayed, holds up his own skin. A corpse rides a skinned horse while holding both of their brains. The body of a young woman eight months pregnant reclines in a provocative pose. Her womb is cut open so we can see her dead baby. The hottest tickets in America's museums are for exhibits of corpses-mutilated, skinned, but posed in "life-like" positions.
These are the brainchild of a German doctor named Gunther von Hagens, who invented "plastination," a method of preserving dead bodies in plastic. He then began carving them into art. Since 1997, his "Body World" exhibits have traveled widely in Europe. Here they stirred up intense controversy, with churches and humanitarian groups almost unanimously condemning the desecration of human bodies.
The opposition, from across the political spectrum, was especially intense in Dr. von Hagens' native Germany, which retains its Holocaust sensitivities. A newspaper discovered that his father, who was helping his son set up a corpse plastination factory in Poland, had been a Nazi SS sergeant. The last time he was in Poland, Dr. von Hagens' father sent 60 people to concentration camps. Later, Russian officials uncovered body-trafficking rings that sold the bodies of mental patients and prisoners, some of whom allegedly went to Dr. von Hagens.
Today, the main factory for plastinating cadavers is in Dalian, China. Last year, the German magazine Der Spiegel found that at least some of the "fresh specimens" obtained at the facility had bullet holes in the back of their heads, suggesting they were executed prisoners.
Dr. von Hagens insists that while he uses some "unclaimed" bodies, which he has obtained within the law, most of the corpses are from voluntary donors. He claims a waiting list of over 6,000 people who want to donate their bodies to his art.
But after facing mounting criticism and legal pressure in Germany, Dr. von Hagens decided to leave Germany. A statement on his website decries "the persistent public hostilities shown toward the exhibition in his country of origin." Calling the Kulturkampf (culture war) surrounding his work "an unbearable situation," he announced that he is permanently moving his exhibits to the United States.
Though Americans seem more conservative morally than Europeans, "Body Worlds" has received little criticism here after showings in Los Angeles, Chicago, Cleveland, and now Philadelphia. Whereas in Europe the venues were mostly art museums, here the exhibits have been in science museums, giving them more legitimacy. The reviews have been glowing, viewers who sign comment books gush over how cool it is, and school children are bused in for field trips.
Over 17 million viewers worldwide have taken in the exhibit, bringing in some $200 million. Such success has brought imitators, whom Dr. von Hagens is suing. The Museum of Science and Industry in Tampa is featuring "Bodies" from a rival group unaffiliated with Dr. von Hagens but using his same techniques and working out of the same city in Dalien, China. Over 11 exhibits of corpse art are making the circuits worldwide.
What is wrong with mutilating corpses and putting them on display? Virtually all civilizations and religions forbid such treatment of the dead. State laws forbid desecrating the dead. The Geneva conventions consider it a war crime.
In Christianity, the body is "a temple of the Holy Spirit" (1 Corinthians 6:19). A human being, who bears God's image, is not to be violated. The dead are to be buried, as was Christ, awaiting the resurrection of the body. In the Christian ethical tradition, burying the dead was one of the seven works of mercy (along with feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, clothing the naked, visiting the imprisoned, and visiting the sick).
But today our culture is desensitizing us as we entertain ourselves with forensic autopsies on TV and real corpses in our museums. This is art in the culture of death.