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?

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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9 Responses to Bodies

  1. JPaul says:

    I am mixed on this one as well, I saw a show(20/20 I think) that was investigating the fact that the bodies on display were purchased or acquired on the black market. Some of them could possibly be executed prisoners. If this is indeed the case I would want nothing to do with the viewing of the show.

    I have however seen the forearm bone of Ste. Anne, this in a Catholic Basilica………….

  2. JPaul says:

    as you scroll over the url above take note of the topics that come up with snap……….

    interesting indeed….

  3. Anne says:

    Last year, my husband, daughter and I went to see Gunther Von Hagens’ “Body Worlds” exhibit at the Museum of Science in Boston. I admit I was pretty nervous about going but once inside I relaxed. This impressive exhibit (I think this is the original)was done in a very dignified manner. As we entered there was a sign explaining that these were indeed true human bodies and that respect for the deceased who donated their bodies to science was expected at all times. The hundreds of viewers walking through (at least while we were there)were very quiet and respectful. It was amazing! Classical music was playing throughout the tour which added to the dignity of the occasion. I don’t know what “Bodies Revealed” is like in comparison but I highly recommend Body Worlds. Accusations concerning the origin of some bodies were made on 20/20 but I believe that Gunther von Hagens has clarified this. Here is a link to the web site:

    I can honestly say that this was much more dignified (guards always nearby to enforce proper behavior)than what I’ve seen in some churches in Europe. Not long ago I witnessed a noisy group laughing at the head of St Catherine in Sienna, Italy. There was no security to asked them to quiet down.

  4. Liam says:

    The old Catholic Encyclopedia yet again offers a lot of food for thought:

  5. Liam says:

    Btw, the reference in that article to the martyrdom of St Polycarp is interesting because his martyrdom in Smyrna is the oldest for which we have an historiated date: February 23, AD 156, and that is thus the earliest substantiated date for the cult of relics. It occurred on the Roman feast of the Terminalia, which concluded the pagan Roman festal year (and which coincidentally was the very day 147 years later for the commencing in Nicomedia of the emperor Diocletian’s Great Persecution).

  6. Meg says:

    I’m against these displays. Body Worlds is coming to my city, and I’ve been giving it a great deal of thought.

    I don’t think consent matters. It’s not about the bodies, it’s about those of us who look at them.

    The way a society treats its dead says something about that society. I think these exhibits say that we see dead bodies as nothing more than meat. Personal property that may be disposed of however one chooses.

    If someone consents to cannibalism after death, is it acceptable? If someone consents to being sent to a taxidermist, stuffed and used as a coat rack (respectfully, of course, maybe a coat rack in the church rectory, or for sacred vestments) would that be something that we, as a society, accept? The dead as furniture?

    Here I see the dead as museum display. I think the claim of education is ridiculous. People who actually NEED to be educated about human anatomy use non-plastinated cadavers donated for that purpose.

    Why do people come and see these displays instead of looking at identical plastic models? Because these are the human dead on display. “Real” human bodies, as opposed to plastic ones or computer generated models.

    I am surprised that there is so much acceptance for this. I suppose it’s all part of society’s emphasis on individual rights and individual consent (“it’s my body, I can do what I want with it”).

    Catholics are obliged to treat treat the bodies of the dead “with respect and charity , in faith and hope of the Resurrection.” (CCC 2300)

    I can see giving one’s body to medical science as a charitable act, but I don’t think that being posed in a museum on display is the same thing.

    I note that people do walk through the display with hushed voices, and great respect. To me that is an indication that they recognize the sacredness, or at least the different-ness of the human body, from, say, the stuffed grizzly in the natural history museum. They do not walk through other displays in the science center that way, no matter how awesome.

    It reminds me of pornography. It’s legal. Everyone has consented. But if I look at it, I am less than I was, I have treated the people as objects.

    Is it okay to treat dead human bodies as ordinary objects?

    Is it okay to make a profit displaying them?

    That’s my take on it, anyway. I won’t be going to see it.

  7. John says:

    There was a time when skinning a person alive was considered the ultimate barbarity. Today, skinning a person dead is considered “educational.”

  8. Elizabeth says:

    When the “Bodies” exhibit opened in Washington D.C. during the Summer of 2006, I was mourning the loss of my mother who died in late June. I can’t tell you how much it filled me with sorrow to see endless posters advertising corpses on display. I may not agree with the church on everything, but we are of one mind when it comes to reverence for the human body. I will attend a conference at Union Station this summer, where this exhibit will be on display, along with other exhibits. I wish the organizers had considered the feelings of attendees who might be offended by “Bodies.” Now I get to spend the weekend trying to avoid advertising again.

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