Over My Dead Body

January 29, 2009

My daughter and I each took a deep breath yesterday evening and ventured into BODIES, the controversial exhibition which is currently showcasing in Dublin. Real human bodies are on display, all of which have been dissected to feature every organ in the body. The specimens have been preserved permanently by a process called ‘polymer preservation’ so that they will not decay. This exhibition is highly educational but it’s also raises something of an ethical dilemma.

bodiesThe origins of the bodies used in this exhibition continue to create controversy, prompting an allegation, denied by the exhibitors, that some of the bodies are those of executed Chinese prisoners.The exhibitors claim that all the people whose bodies are being exhibited, died of natural causes. The ethical dilemma raised here is the fact that the exhibitors are profiting from displaying the remains of individuals who have not consented to their remains being used in this manner.

A sign on entry to the exhibition states that “the specimens  have been treated with the dignity and respect they so richly deserve.” I’ve no problem admitting that I found the exhibition far more interesting than disturbing. Having once studied anatomy and physiology using bodies donated for research, I loved having another opportunity to look inside the body and marvel at it’s sophistication. Our bodies are amazing things really when you consider how they function without us even thinking about it. My daughter has just completed a college semester in the dissecting room and she felt the exhibits helped her to put her recent learning into context. One curtained off part of the exhibition contains foetal and embryonic specimens but visitors are given the option to skip this section due to the sensitive nature of it’s display. A sign outside states that “all specimens perished in utero from complications during pregnancy.” While sad to look at, my daughter and I marvelled at  the various stages of development in utero and we were able to relate what we saw to my own experiences of pregnancy loss. This is not for everyone but it does form a useful learning experience and if nothing else, it makes you stop and think about how precious life is.

We left the exhibition feeling that we’d witnessed something very special. Some might argue that this exhibition teaches that there is nothing wrong with exploiting the dead in order to make a profit, as long as it is in the name of science or education or art. I believe that it offers a unique insight into the wonders of the human body and allows access to sights and knowledge normally reserved only for medical professionals. By understanding how the body works, you are in a better position care for your own body and keep it healthy. Having said all that, I’m happy to keep my body to myself.

Another article on the exhibition can be found here in the Irish Times.