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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.

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SDaniels Sept. 17, 2009 @ 9:10 p.m.

The best way to honor the person who chose to donate his body to educate you is to do just that--pay attention and LEARN about the body through his generous gift--rather than wish to throw t-shirt and shorts on the plastinated specimen he provided, or presume to force your religious sentiments and practices on his remains.


magicsfive Sept. 17, 2009 @ 9:29 p.m.

i am totally going to donate myself to The Body Farm when i die.


SDaniels Sept. 17, 2009 @ 9:35 p.m.

Yeah, I read about a place somewhere in Virginia, where they suit up bodies and bang the hell out of them, testing various products. Why not? If your organs aren't in the greatest shape, at least there is something useful to be done, rather than have your family pay exorbitant sums to the funeral parlor, so as to make sure you take a lot of harmful embalming chemicals with you and your coffin, constructed of endangered wood and toxic glue, to the grave :)


SDaniels Sept. 17, 2009 @ 9:38 p.m.

Hey magics, I responded before you posted your link--will check it out :)


magicsfive Sept. 17, 2009 @ 9:46 p.m.

lol well actually they may do that..i'm not sure but what do i care, i'm dead, right? but i think it mostly deals with how bodies decompose in various settings, temperature, and insect activity, etc. i think it's awesome and if it can help with crime solving, research and education, then i am all for it. in my own mind, myself rotting in a box isn't going to help anyone, nor is getting cremated. but it is a matter of personal choice, and that is my choice. yeah check it out, SD, it is very interesting.


SDaniels Sept. 17, 2009 @ 10:15 p.m.

I understand what you're saying, magics, but it shouldn't be a personal choice or right when we are continually and needlessly polluting the earth with toxic burials and the air and earth both with eco-unfriendly cremations.

As the author of this article proves, the living have a deep impulse to ritualize burial, and then erase all physical signs of death--it is a need that is hygienic but also psychological. Plastination is philosophically interesting because it flies in the face of these practices, while articulating an actual (but not so new--idea's been around for centuries) "use" for the human body in death.

I like the idea of "eco-burial," where they bury you without cremation, and just wrap you in a simple white sheet, and put you in the ground. However, the idea of one's body being useful after death is the most comforting to me, whether it be through organ donation, testing cars or other products for safety, studies in decomposition for criminal justice, or an afterlife as a teaching specimen or sideshow plastinate :)


David Dodd Sept. 17, 2009 @ 10:41 p.m.

They can toss my dead body into a large sack and pitch it into a dumpster for all I care. Or feed my corpse, piece by piece, to some endangered species like the California Condor. I just don't want an open casket funeral. I picture at least one person saying, "He looks so peaceful."

What a crock! I'm not peaceful, dammit! I just died, I'm mad as hell!

I'm also unsure about having a grave site for fear of the number of people that would want to dance on it ;)


antigeekess Sept. 17, 2009 @ 11:43 p.m.

Aw, I think it's a nice piece, Daniels. In fact, I think it's quite beautiful. I hope it's a winner this month.

"It still shines, even if it is smashed."

That really is just perfect.

I remember "Sagittal 3-D Slice Body, 1999" from the exhibit. He was the one that struck me the most, as well, probably because the face is so easily discernible. A body we can dismiss as just a body. But a face is another thing altogether. A face is a person.

That's not logical, just human.

We already went through some of this on the organ donation thread that developed a few weeks ago. I'm all for organ donation, whole body donation for medical education, etc. As for this exhibit, I saw it in March, while I was enrolled in anatomy class. Whadda field trip! Plastination rocks.

But, still...

The exhibit is a bit, well, sobering to view. I wish I could think of the right word to describe it. Both you and Refried are better writers than I am. Perhaps you can come up with it.

Something that combines an in-your-face confrontation with human mortality and the temporal aspect of life with gratitude for a generous gift.

And even just a little reverence. It never hurt anybody.


David Dodd Sept. 18, 2009 @ 12:10 a.m.

"A body we can dismiss as just a body. But a face is another thing altogether. A face is a person.

That's not logical, just human."

An amazing observation, AG. Maybe it's both logical AND human.

The vertical dissections of the human body and head leave me with more questions than answers. I've always considered the body as a machine. Most machines are designed to be taken apart and repaired, to a point. Our machines, these bodies, are self-repairing in many respects. The vertical dissections have troubled me much in the same way that the vertical dissection of a Chevy 350 block might be dissected (for example), in that it seems entirely unnatural.

Here's what bothers me: Maybe these machines have souls.

Forget about the religious or the spiritual aspect of a soul, it isn't so important as the builders of the soul. Not a God or Gods, but of other machines, both human and non-human, those we affect and those that affected us, we built each other. WE continue to dissect and build each other. Anyone can thinly slice me up with a chain saw and others can marvel at my insides from a unique angle, but the real challenge and the ultimate reward that we get is from more natural (or perhaps supernatural) dissections.

The soul of that 350 engine is made up from every mechanic that every worked on it, and the soul of the engine is imprinted on said mechanics. Likewise, the soul of the human, dissected by other souls, defines all souls.

It isn't vertical, it's almost etheral. A body without a soul is like a machine that never ran. Who would want to dissect that?


SDaniels Sept. 18, 2009 @ 12:12 a.m.

I actually presented on plastination at a literary conference at Berkeley, as I might have written you when we talked about this before. The exhibit itself becomes almost banal as a teaching tool, or even as edu-tainment; the interesting thing to me is how it marks a potential change in our dealings with death, and how it confronts our denial of and discomfort with human death as a physical fact, in this instance of its refusal to disappear, and its enduring on display, in some way like all the accidentally preserved detritus of our society. We provide not much archeological evidence for distant future generations--we are too much here, and repetitious at that in the non-decaying objects that bespeak our lifestyles. (Imagine your existence tallied only in terms of all you've ever saved or thrown out (!)

I can see why you like it, but I read this piece as being rather willfully naive; instead of tackling the difficult questions raised by the spectacle of plastination, the author chose to remain not only whistling--but praying--in the dark. I feel that rehumanizing the plastinate in this way, and praying over the remains, did dishonor to the person who provided his body as specimen; people who donate their bodies to this cause are not often devout Christians, and feel more strongly about advancements in medical science than they do about the ritual of burial. That said, I would not want to walk into a von Hagens's exhibit and see a loved one.

Is it Jeremy Bentham, philosopher, who stipulated in his will that his funds would cease to a certain foundation, if they did not wheel out his stuffed body for annual meetings? Now that's gumption :)


SDaniels Sept. 18, 2009 @ 12:16 a.m.

This is almost animistic of you, refried ;) You are somehow playing around with the idea that the soul somehow 'sticks' to the vehicle?


David Dodd Sept. 18, 2009 @ 12:31 a.m.

Actually, SD, I'm not sure that the soul sticks to the machine when it's living. It's more of a Platonist ideal, in that we're more defined by our essence than anything else, and our essence (soul, for lack of a more lengthy bridge from here to there), is defined more by the perceptions, interactions, impressions, and so on than anything else. In other words, slicing up the human body doesn't do justice to what the human body represents. It might be a casing for the soul, but I doubt it. The body is a machine, but the soul of the machine - which is the most important aspect (so much so that it's almost comical to consider a machine without a soul) - isn't capable of being revealed by simply slicing vertical sections in order to reveal what's inside.

I reckon, for the lack of a better metaphor, it would be like slicing up a caterpillar in order to reveal the anatomy of the butterfly.


antigeekess Sept. 18, 2009 @ 12:36 a.m.

"The soul of that 350 engine is made up from every mechanic that every worked on it, and the soul of the engine is imprinted on said mechanics. Likewise, the soul of the human, dissected by other souls, defines all souls."

Busy, busy, busy...


antigeekess Sept. 18, 2009 @ 12:42 a.m.

"I reckon, for the lack of a better metaphor, it would be like slicing up a caterpillar in order to reveal the anatomy of the butterfly."

"What the caterpillar calls the end of the world, the Master calls a butterfly." -- Richard Bach.


Me wikey butterflies. :)


David Dodd Sept. 18, 2009 @ 12:42 a.m.

"Busy, busy, busy..."

Exactly :)

I don't try to find any meaning in it, that would wreck everything. I simply observe and report, ma'am ;)


SDaniels Sept. 18, 2009 @ 12:43 a.m.

Ah ha, I see, refried. I think we must consider that the intent of the plastination exhibit is not to reveal the soul; in true postmodern form, it is all about revealing surfaces and angles. The Victorians were more about trying to dissect and preserve in order to reveal some essence of soul.

As for the weary addictions to essence and presence, and the idea of (neo)platonism (yes, the parentheses are necessarily stuck to the vehicle, as it is certain that Plato was not a Platonist), I urge you to consider visiting M. Derrida very soon. :)


David Dodd Sept. 18, 2009 @ 12:44 a.m.

"What the caterpillar calls the end of the world, the Master calls a butterfly." -- Richard Bach.

Obviously, Bach is a Bokononist!


David Dodd Sept. 18, 2009 @ 12:47 a.m.

The neo in front of the Platonist is, obviously, necessary. As Plato defined Socrates, so did Aristotle define Plato.

And I will certainly get my hands on some Derrida next trip over the border and up to downtown San Diego.


antigeekess Sept. 18, 2009 @ 12:49 a.m.

Daniels opined:

"I feel that rehumanizing the plastinate in this way, and praying over the remains, did dishonor to the person who provided his body as specimen..."

Okay. This has a Frankensteinian feel to it that I get. Sort of like reanimation of a corpse, which would be perverse.

However, Eleanor Roosevelt once remarked that "No one can hurt you without your consent." I don't think any of the plastinates are going to be consenting to having their feelings hurt. :)


SDaniels Sept. 18, 2009 @ 1:02 a.m.

You get it, then, Dr. Frankenstein :)

However, Eleanor, though plastinates are beyond human reaction as well as action (save the skateboarder and the apocalyptic horseman, perhaps), the irony of the situation is that rather than honor the memory of the donors, the author dishonors them with clumsy presumption and willful ignorance. I stand firm on that. Honor the wishes of the dead--in this case, to be considered an innovative and immortal teaching tool.


SDaniels Sept. 18, 2009 @ 1:05 a.m.

refried: I always wanted a t-shirt depicting Socrates seated at a writing desk, painfully prodded on to write by Plato, standing behind him. There is a great illustration of this Derrida's "The Postcard" (La Carte postale).

I don't recommend jumping in with that, though. "Of Grammatology" is probably the best place to start. I can't wait to have some leisurely lunches, and restart my own brain in some discussions of it with you :)


magicsfive Sept. 18, 2009 @ 6:59 a.m.

"I understand what you're saying, magics, but it shouldn't be a personal choice or right when we are continually and needlessly polluting the earth with toxic burials and the air and earth both with eco-unfriendly cremations."


excellent point, SD, and i never thought of that. but people are murdered and left for dead all the time like that and just as an example, Danielle Van Damme...they were able to come to a lot of conclusions about her death just by insect activity and her rate of decomposition..well it's been a long time since that poor sweet little girl's death, but i think that was a factor in convicting that man. you are right, but i still think it is an important study. i saw the BODIES exhibit while in nursing school...it was amazing. idk if it is what you are all talking about though but perhaps similar.


SDaniels Sept. 18, 2009 @ 3:24 p.m.

Dear magics, I think you misunderstood my point. I am ALL FOR decomp studies done as you describe, and in the Dr. Wall link. My point about traditional burials and disposal methods is a separate point, that they are toxic and need to be replaced by more eco-friendly methods. After all, the only thing certain in life is the fact of death. It's a certainty we need to prepare for, but let's also not pollute the earth, air, and water for future generations with our chemical-laden carcasses.


SDaniels Sept. 18, 2009 @ 3:29 p.m.

As for the BODIES exhibit, it is done by a former student of von Hagens, who does the original, BODYWORLDS exhibition. Von Hagens claims that his former student, whom he trained in China, has ill-kept his specimens, that they are treated like props rather than with respect, and that his specimens are rather shabby. Not having seen BODIES, I can't comment personally; it could be smack talk from von Hagens on a competitor.

Incidentally, he is rather a strange character. He organized the first televised autopsy either in Germany or the Netherlands. :) He goes around with a big black hat, like the artist Joseph Beuys. He dressed up as a plastinate in a parade or two, and has posed standing next to the plastinates, trying to 'look' like them. Many people might find him a bit macabre, unless they look at the centuries-long history of anatomical art.


SDaniels Sept. 18, 2009 @ 11:09 p.m.

For those too lazy to click on the link, I copy it below :) I think he's lying when he says he isn't emulating Beuys, but it is true that he is obsessed with the Portrait of Dr. Tulp, and all of the history of dissection, anatomical illustration and preservation of bodies. It is a fascinating history! Clearly, someone did a bad translation here, or maybe even an automatic one, from the German:

"For more than fifteen years, my physical self-conception has been linked with a black hat. Since then, the question as to why I wear a hat has trivialized many a discussion. Many times people insinuate that I wear a hat to emulate Joseph Beuys. Any comparison with the object artist, however, will fall on corpses should not all of a sudden become useless things with deaf ears—my hat has nothing to do with him. The person who seems to be more in line with my hat fad is the eccentric Englishman and contemporary of Goethe, Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832), who advocated as lawyer and philosopher that death. Nor is my hat a brand mark, it symbolizes something entirely different. I am a democrat and individualist with all my heart. The strength of our Western democracy lies within the promotion of individualism, based on the maxim, "live and let live." "


SDaniels Sept. 18, 2009 @ 11:09 p.m.

Oh yeah, it's funny how I mentioned Bentham earlier, and there he is again :)


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