I’m standing in front of a real human body at Body Worlds and The Brain — Our Three Pound Gem, currently on exhibition at the San Diego Natural History Museum. It’s a real human body, all right, one that has undergone the process of plastination. According to the inventor of the process, Gunther von Hagens, plastination occurs when “bodily fluids and soluble fat in the specimens are…extracted and replaced through vacuum-forced impregnation with reactive resins and elastomers such as silicon rubber and epoxy.” According to the Body Worlds website, “After posing of the specimens for optimal teaching value, they are cured with light, heat, or certain gases,” which gives them “rigidity and permanence.”
I put my hands across my eyes, as I would from the sun. Between slices of bright light, I see Sagittal 3-D Slice Body, 1999. I learn more about the object of my fascination:
This specimen presents the human body in thick frontal slices cut sagittally. As in the following example, not all of the organs and tissue have been sliced through but instead protrude three-dimensionally from the surface.
He’s remarkable because I think I can recognize a face: I imagine that there’s a dimple on the right side of his chin. His head is large and round, his features Shrek-ish, a thick jaw. A thick neck too, like a retired football or rugby player. I see the folds in the corner of his lips, the drooping, fleshy cheeks, the space between his brow and eye. A wide, expressive eye, as in a Renaissance painting. One of the man’s thick slices features his right nipple, his sagging breast, his protruding tummy. I look at his genitals; I can’t help it. I look at his leg; it is long, and the thigh seems much longer than the lower leg. He was chubby, I decide. But if I were his friend I would know him, despite what the plastination process claims:
The body donor’s own identity is altered during the anatomical preparation. The process gives both the face and the body a new appearance on the basis of their internal anatomy. Therefore, a plastinated specimen could not be recognized from its external features — that would require complex reconstruction techniques.
I know that Sagittal 3-D Slice Body, 1999 is one of approximately 25 “artistically posed, whole-body plastinates.” I know that he donated his body to the Institute for Plastination’s Body Donor Program and that by doing so he will advance the cause of science and help foster the advance of knowledge in an “unprecedented homage to humanity.” But in my unplastinated heart and three-pound gem of a mind, I know of homage to humanity: a funeral, a burial, a cremation.
I know that the plastinate’s cremation will come, one day. That this splendid plastic work and former human was, before anything, from God and will find its ultimate resting place in an incinerator spewing plastic fumes from its source. I know that graves and graveyards don’t last forever and that a hallowed mausoleum is the stuff of spooky Halloween stories as well as reverence and memories. In his article “The Dignity of Man,” Professor Franz Josef Wetz wrote that “the mourning for the death of a person cannot hurt forever. The memory of his or her life pales, and finally the once-inconsolable ones left behind die themselves; we cannot stop the past from slipping into nothingness. Finally a veil of forgetfulness covers us all, and even this forgetting is ultimately forgotten.”
But thank God for short memories, because in my mind even a plastinate needs a funeral service. Surrounding me are real human bodies of what were perhaps Muslims, Jews, Christians, Buddhists, Hindus, Jains, atheists, and anybody else. How to provide a decent service for everyone? How can I go about this without insulting the dead? Who’s who in this wasteland of conscious oblivion?
There is just one plastinate with which I feel comfortable: Sagittal 3-D Slice Body, 1999. I find comfort in looking at his comfortable, easy face. I can imagine myself as a child, sitting on his lap, pinching his chubby granddaddy cheeks. Although the literature of this exhibition stresses that “The focus of Body Worlds is on the nature of our physical being rather than on the personal histories or private tragedies of the donors,” this man was somebody’s grandfather, somebody’s zayde, nonno, pop-pop, grand-man. When was his funeral, his levayah, with family and friends around, some with the torn lapel indicating bereavement? In the Body Worlds Catalog on the Exhibition, von Hagens informs the reader that the donors “expressly waived their right to burial.” But I design a little funeral service, right there, to honor Sagittal 3-D Slice Body, 1999. Guests include the other plastinates and all the specimens, bless them too.
I say the ancient blessing, a blessing I know is probably scandalous to say in this exhibition room, but I can’t stop myself:
Barukh atah Adonai Eloheinu melekh ha’olam, dayan ha-emet. (“Blessed are You, LORD, our God, King of the universe, the True Judge.”) And what if he were Christian? I can’t possibly cover every religion, but this I do remember, a prayer from the Book, so I say it to myself, for him:
I am the resurrection and the life, saith the Lord; he that believeth in Me, though he were dead, yet shall he live; and whosoever liveth and believeth in Me shall never die.
Here, there is no elaborate coffin, no best clothes, no tachrichinm (burial clothing) that bodies wear for funerals. No wife, child, brother, or father placed something in his coffin, something to bring with him to the next life. But there is one thing that I can do for Sagittal 3-D Slice Body, 1999.
Tradition reminds me that when visiting a Jewish grave, even that of someone you never knew, take a small stone or a rock and leave it at the grave. It lets the family know that you were there and shows your contribution to the maintenance of the gravesite. Now this is where it gets a little twisted. I want to leave something for him, something for his gravesite, which has to be this place, for now. But there is no stone anywhere. I look through my purse: makeup, tissues, wallet, keys, cell phone, PDA, my inhaler. I have a few smashed soft chews — little squares of vitamin D, calcium, and vitamin K wrapped in aluminum — that look like Christmas presents. One of these will do fine. I seize my opportunity for anonymity. I place the square at Sagittal 3-D Slice Body’s foot and say, “This is for you. This is your stone that shows I have been here. I wish I could put a pair of beach shorts on you, a T-shirt from San Diego, drive you to the beach, place you on a blanket, place frosted real margaritas all around you like flowers, run like hell, and have you hear the ocean for five billion years, until everything disintegrates. Amen.”
I walk away from him pretty fast and continue my journey through the exhibition. It is my hope that the wrapped chew stays there, at least until it will be swept away that night. At least until he can see it, looking down from where he is. It still shines, even if it is smashed.