Maybe it’s my age — the dark side of my sixties, an elder proto-baby boomer, those 78 million Americans born between 1946 and 1964. Maybe it’s because I’ve been tearing my hair filling out Medicare forms. Whatever the case, I’ve begun to think increasingly of death, for which an Internet search turns up more than 1,000 euphemisms: worm food, field of screams, dirt nap, or, for journalists: the big deadline, the final edit.
To put it another way: the boomers have begun to go bang. Eight million have died already. In fact, in January, 1700 were dying every 24 hours, according to the Baby Boomer Death Counter (boomerdeathcounter.com). So long, pals.
Of course, Americans in general are dying all the time: 700,000 yearly from heart attacks, 600,000 from cancer, 150,000 from strokes, 125,000 from respiratory diseases — more than 2,500,000 in all. But the boomers, I’ve always thought of them as young. After all, they’re practically my generation. As young people we shared the same music, the same movies. Now we’re moving to adult communities, assisted living facilities, old folks’ homes. Some are signing up for pre-need burial plans; some are measuring themselves for caskets. Or they may be found staring out at the ocean with melancholy expressions, their toes almost touching the surf. That restless water, is that where their ashes will be sprinkled?
So it was with a mixture of dread and curiosity that in November I drove to Westfield University Towne Centre on La Jolla Village Drive to check out Bodies…The Exhibition. Its ads promised more than 260 organs, including 21 full-body specimens, with the same fervor that a movie might promise Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie. Having opened in early May, the exhibition continued till the end of January: seven days a week, for your viewing pleasure. The exhibition’s website (bodiestheexhibition.com) currently lists 14 different Bodies exhibitions, which adds up to 294 full-body specimens and more than 3640 organs. The exhibitions are operated by Premier Exhibitions Inc. in Atlanta, the same folks who brought us the Titanic exhibits.
At least half a dozen other companies also exhibit bodies, but the main one is Body Worlds, which organized the first of such exhibits in Tokyo in 1995 and is still going strong, having had exhibits visited by more than 25 million people in 45 cities in North America, Europe, and Asia. Compared to Body Worlds, Bodies… The Exhibition is rather small potatoes, having been visited by only about 4 million.
Body Worlds was developed and promoted by Dr. Gunther von Hagens, formerly a pathologist at the University of Heidelberg’s anatomy and pathology department. In 1977 Dr. von Hagens invented the process that he called Plastination.
“In Plastination,” writes Dr. von Hagens on his website bodyworlds.com, “bodily fluids and soluble fats are extracted from a specimen, and replaced through vacuum-forced impregnation with reactive resins and elastomers, such as silicon rubber. After posing of the specimen for optimal teaching value, it is cured with light, heat, or certain gases which gives it rigidity and permanence.” In a plastinated specimen, every bodily smidgen can be put on view from the glossy red net of the circulatory system, to the entire body thinly sliced from top to bottom like a pound of Swiss cheese, to the skinned body showing off its muscular system, the respiratory system, the digestive system, whatever. This hardly describes the anatomical landscapes presented for your viewing pleasure, and not simply yours, but your children’s, your grandchildren’s and great-grandchildren’s, because these things last forever, or at least until the world goes kaput.
The issue of “optimal teaching value” might be open to question. One of my favorite of von Hagens’s figures is a plastinated horse reared up on faux Scottish heath and nicely filleted to show off its insides, while on its back perches a rambunctious bareback rider similarly filleted and split from top to bottom to bring to view his inner and outer qualities. Behind them is a backdrop showing Loch Lomond or perhaps Loch Ness with a mountain rising above it, for this is Scotland and the figure is called the “Highlander.”
In an autobiographical statement on the website, Dr. von Hagens described his moment of discovery. He had been slicing up human kidneys for a research project and was having difficulties getting a clean cut. “Then one day, I was in the butcher shop in the university town where I was studying, and as I watched the saleswoman slice ham, it dawned on me that I ought to be using a meat slicer for cutting kidneys. And so a ‘rotary blade cutter,’ as I called it in the project-appropriation request, became my first Plastination investment.”
He had his first “presentable sample” not long afterward. “That was on January 10, 1977, the day that I decided to make Plastination the focus of my life.” The next year he formed Biodur Products, which sells equipment and materials for anyone interested in doing Plastination on their own. In 1983, he plastinated the heel bone of St. Hildegard of Bingen (1090–1179) at the request of the Catholic Church. His offer to plastinate Pope John Paul II was dropped after becoming bogged down in controversy. In 2001 he opened a plastinating factory, Von Hagens Dalian Plastination Ltd., in Dalian, China, a city of more than six million people.
In Germany, Dr. von Hagens opened the Institute of Plastination in Heidelberg in 1993; his 27,000-square-foot museum, the Plastinarium, opened in the city of Guben in 2006. His website claims there are more than 400 Plastination laboratories in 40 countries “preparing specimens for academic study.” He also solicits body donors, and so far more than 8000 people, including more than 100 Britons, have willed their bodies to the Institute of Plastination. Over 400 have already died, and some, no doubt, have been put on display for their loved ones to admire.
Born in Sieniawa Zarska, Poland, in 1945, the son of a former SS officer and Nazi official, Dr. von Hagens originally had the surname Liebchen, which means “sweetheart.” This he gave up when he married his first wife, Dr. Cornelia von Hagens, and took her surname; the “von” suggests nobility. In 2005, Dr. von Hagens tried to purchase an abandoned factory in his hometown to be used to plastinate bodies, a “cathedral of science,” he said, with “a dissection table as its altar.” He hired his 88-year-old father, Gerhard Liebchen, to run the operation, but the Polish government vetoed the idea, citing the inappropriateness of employing a former SS officer, who had been active in subduing Poles during the Nazi occupation, to run a body factory. The doctor then fired his father, saying he had known nothing about his father’s war experiences.