The exhibit Bodies Revealed opens in KC’s Union Station today. Lots of interest and commentary in the local media, the blogosphere, and other circles. My bishop has weighed in too:
Catholic moral teaching regards the human person as a unity of soul and body, spirit and matter — beings capable of freedom and love in communion with other persons and with God. As such, the body is more than just a vessel for the soul. The Church’s concern for human dignity extends to the body even after the soul is no longer present.
The bodies of the dead deserve respect and charity, preserving the God-given dignity of the human person. In lieu of immediate burial, the Church does allow for – and in some cases commends – the conscientious free choice of persons to “donate” their bodies for legitimate scientific research and educational purposes. In these instances, the deceased body and its parts deserve respectful interment.
Concerning the “Bodies” exhibit, one of our brother bishops recently wrote, “The public exhibition of plasticized bodies, unclaimed, unidentified, and displayed without reverence, is unseemly and inappropriate. Whatever the merits of ‘Bodies’ as an educational exhibit, and however well-intentioned the exhibit’s creators might be, we believe that the use of human bodies in this way fails to respect the persons involved.”
We regard the “Bodies” exhibit as an unfortunate exploitation of that which is “real” to teach something that could be accomplished by use of models. As such it represents a kind of “human taxidermy” that degrades the actual people who, through their bodies, once lived, loved, prayed, and died.
For these reasons, we do not believe that this exhibit is an appropriate destination for field trips by our Catholic schools.
Some issues strike me:
I agree that respect is tantamount. I remember a human skeleton in a science classroom in my (Catholic) high school. The teacher was firm and insistent that any sort of small prank associated with the skeleton was most unwelcome. She insisted on a respect that some of my classmates never reserved for anyone.
There is a difference between private study of a human body in a teaching institution and a public display. Bodies Revealed tries to cover its butt by saying the presentation is educational. But it’s also about making money and developing publicity and clientele for the host institution.
I was thinking about the church’s own practice in exhibiting bodies and body parts of saints. Relics have a long history in Catholicism. Nearly all are indeed treated with great respect. But not every one. And many Catholics find the emphasis on the physical remains to be gruesome, creepy, and inappropriate: not unlike the objections raised to Bodies Revealed.
Getting back to the public nature of display, it is somewhat easier for individuals in the uncontrolled masses to snicker or otherwise disrespect Bodies Revealed or religious relics. Maybe it’s more about the visitors than the actual display.
The local editorial on it mused in part:
Some state legislatures are considering laws that would require documentation of the origin of corpses used in exhibits, and proof that people willingly donated their bodies to scientific education. Those steps should be mandatory.
That sets the bar a little higher for Catholics. I tend to doubt that many of our saints would, in their humility, approve of the display of their bodies and body parts. Most, it would seem, would prefer to point to Christ, and point to the imitation of Christ and his saints as a higher honor.
I haven’t made up my own mind on this exhibit being either good or disrespectful. I recognize complex and competing motives. What do you think?