Sensational Education

Dead people fascinate me.

I suspect that a lot of people have this obsession, deep down. I loved both Stiff and Corpse for their fascinating depictions of death and forensics. I also plow through books like Death’s Acre, which specifically talks about forensic anthropology. And I don’t just read about dead people and the fascinating things that their bodies do…I am also obsessed with CSI and other forensics shows.

I was talking to a friend the other day and mentioned that I probably would have gone for a career in forensics, except that dead people smell. Also, I think that I am probably more squeamish than I realize. But it’s more The Smell. Nice fresh bodies, I’m sure, are quite fine, but…one doesn’t get to choose the cases that get worked on.

I think it’s part of a larger human interest in death, in general. I mean, we’ve conquered quite a few things, scientifically, but we still have not gotten a handle on death. Death is mysterious and intriguing to us because we don’t really know what it is, and while we can describe what happens physically, that doesn’t satisfy our quest to know more.

My feelings about death drive me to want to see shows like BodyWorlds, because I think it would be interesting. On the other hand, I kind of dislike the sense of showboating that goes along with it. I like the concept of showing people posed in different activities, of peeling back different layers of skin and muscle to show what’s going on under there. And these bodies were donated by people who wanted to be seen. But there’s also something about it that is troubling to me, just as taxidermies kind of upset me. A sort of violation of nature, that this body which should have decomposed naturally and returned to the earth is now just plastic.

I mean, I’ve seen dead people in varying states. I support anatomical dissection for medical students who want to participate in it. But I’m not sure that looking at a confusing agglomeration of body parts would benefit me, really. I could also look at an anatomy textbook, or physically hold and work with models of body parts. Just…looking…doesn’t seem very productive.

There are also some ethical issues with BodyWorlds. While the developers of BodyWorlds may claim that their bodies are all freely donated, I’m not sure that’s true. I know that this isn’t the case with copycat shows, which use bodies and prosections from places like China and India. Places which use capital punishment to generate a flow of organs for those in need, and also run large plastination factories to supply parts for the education of medical students. Everything has its price…and I’m not sure that bodies from these areas were always freely donated, especially given prevailing beliefs about death and dying.

This is why I war over BodyWorlds within myself. On the one hand, yes, confront mortality, check out all of these cool plastinated people, isn’t that cool. But then I hear that BodyWorlds includes a pregnant woman with fetus still inside, and I wonder what happened to her. And how it would feel to look at that. Is it really educational, or just voyeurism, like slumming in the ghettos of New Orleans?

Is is education? Or just sensationalism wrapped in the guise of education? Should I really agonize over it that much?