Thursday, 15 May 2008

FEATURE: The Ethics of Displaying the Dead

Commissioned (unpublished due to timing): MANCHESTER CONFIDENTIAL, May 2008
The Ethics of Displaying the Dead.

Considering the debates and opinions sprouting out of viewers and Manchester Confidential readers on both Gunthur von Hagens’ Body Worlds 4 and Manchester Museum’s Lindow man exhibition (otherwise known as ‘The Bog Man’s Care Bear’), the turn out at the recent public debate discussing the ethics of displaying the dead was rather disappointing. Taking my seat among my fellow 20ish members of the public and looking about me, I saw no raving Christians waving banners, no Pagans wielding pick axes – Emma where were you? Not much sign of life at all.

The debate itself, which took place at the Science and Industry Museum, spread itself over a rather lengthy two hours. Not that I would have been checking the time had the discussion been fuelled by passionate discussion. As it was however, I think the clock edged its way past nine (it started at seven) only because it seemed to take everyone so God damn long to say anything – either that or they all liked the sound of their own voices a bit too much. Nevertheless, despite the tooing and froing, the tangents and the minimal participation, the debate lead by Manchester Museum did raise some very interesting arguments to a very controversial question: Should we display the dead?

Well of course we should. Human remains are a vital source of information. As Rose Drew rather sentimentally and emotively stated in the debate, the dead offer us ‘unvarnished truth of all the things we think are important in life’. Bodies have been used and displayed throughout history, even now the Vatican is displaying a will be saint, while Lenin lies preserved in a mausoleum in Moscow's Red Square.

However as Piotr Bienkowski, deputy director at the Manchester Museum, argued rather menacingly (though this may have been for arguments sake), the problem with displaying the dead is that in doing so, we treat them as objects, when in fact they should be treated ‘as if they were still people’, with respect and dignity.

Fair point. When staring into the eyes of a plastinated, but still real, human man in Body Worlds 4, gripping a guitar and leaning back in full swing; or a woman, her skin torn away on the rock behind her (apart from her pubic hair if you’d noticed – pornographic anyone?), are you not left feeling rather uncomfortable? Like maybe this is a step too far? I wonder if on the form Mr Hagens supplied these donors he included a ‘Favourite Hobbies’ section; maybe the lady had a penchant for rock climbing? If not, I do hope the guitar man didn’t have a severe hatred for rock music. Does this then mean this, rather sensationalist, entertainment focused way of displaying dead bodies is disrespectful? These people might have given their bodies to the ‘qualification of physicians and the instruction of lay persons’, but that doesn’t mean they wanted Mr Hagens and his rather creepy leather hat depicting them to the masses as a gambler, or as catching their intestines in a goal save.

It doesn’t help either that Body Worlds has been accused of procuring its bodies, mainly from third world counties such as China, illegitimately. Apparently all participating corpses gave informed consent, but different countries have different understandings of what consent means. How is this censored? When coming to Britain, the bodies were regarded as imports because they were from overseas and thus did not need moral authorization. If we do not have proof that these individuals truly gave their dead body for use, should we display them? If the answer is no, does this not then also apply to the Egyptian mummies which fill our country’s museums, whose excavation and transportation to another land is a deep violation of their beliefs and wishes? Which then brings forward the question of how we value different people? Who should stay and who should go and who has the authority to decide – everything starts getting a bit confudling at this point. 

On the other hand however, if consent was indeed given then what’s the problem? If someone wishes to be cremated, or donate their body to medical schools no one makes a fuss. If we are allowed to do as we wish in life, why can’t we in death? Even if this is joining Hagen’s touring show of curiosities, be it in eternal hunt for fame, immortality or what ever else allures people to sign his dotted line.

Of course aside from all this there is the undeniable fact that exhibitions that display human remains, be it a plastinated human, an Egyptian mummy or shrivelled bog man are incredibly educational. Experiencing human decay, death and our internal workings up front cannot be duplicated by models and books. Modern learning theory tells us that interaction provides a greater resonance within learners. It is the stuff which makes children interested in Science and History, what spurs people to become doctors or anthropologists. Body Worlds makes biology interesting.

Not only that, but it makes learning accessible and available. Provides the opportunity to see and understand death and our internal workings up front in a society where death and the reality of our frailty are locked away, only experienced through computer games and glossy films. The displays of the deceased force us to face our mortality.

Overall it seemed the debates main downfall, apart from being far to pernickety, was offering the public a sideline. When it came to the final vote, there was the choice of yes, no and then a sometimes – copout I think yes. Which was opted for by 14 of the audience- get a backbone guys. The other votes went NO: 3 and YES: 8, so luckily for us fascinated and spectacle hunting members of the public I think bog man is here to stay. While finally a last comment to those who take offence to the display of the dead – wouldn’t it be better if you just didn’t go?

Interested? Then head down to the Museum of Science and Industry on Tuesday 20th May for a talk on the ethics of Body Worlds by Dr Death himself, Tony Walter, Professor of Death Studies at the University of Bath. It starts at 7pm and admission is £5 per person or £2.50 with a BODY WORLDS 4 ticket. Cash bar.

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