Body Worlds: Diary of the Dead

On January 29, 2005, I wrote an article titled Body Worlds: The Art of Plastic Corpses?, in which I criticized the popular traveling exhibitions of plasticized human bodies that have garnered so much national attention in the United States. On March 4, 2005, I wrote a follow-up article, Body Worlds Corpse Factory, which took a closer look at Gunther von Hagens, the man behind the “Institute of Plastination” and the inventor of the process by which human cadavers are preserved by injecting them with molten plastic. In my articles I raised doubts regarding the moral and legal questions surrounding the Body Worlds exhibit, not the least of which was the possibility that some of the bodies on display were in fact executed Chinese prisoners. Since publishing my critique of Body Worlds, few U.S. media outlets have offered anything but positive reviews for the exhibit – until now.

On February 15, 2008, three years after my having publicly criticized Body Worlds on this web log, ABC News broadcast a devastating examination of the traveling exhibitions of plasticized human bodies, questioning the ethics of the exhibits and calling into question exactly how the cadavers have been, and are being obtained. Journalist Brian Ross and his investigative team, working for the ABC televised news magazine 20/20, went to China and conducted an undercover investigation into the black market for human cadavers. They interviewed a black marketeer involved in collecting and selling “unclaimed” human bodies, who supplied 20/20 with photos showing the bloody bodies of executed prisoners – bound hand and foot – being delivered to a facility that would then sell the corpses for around $200 each. The black marketeer alleged that, “some of the bodies were given to Chinese companies that supply corpses preserved in plastic for display in the United States.”

In the course of its investigation, ABC’s 20/20 found that Corcoran Laboratories, Inc., in Traverse City, Michigan, USA, not only sells plasticized human bodies from China on its website, it’s a main supplier to Premier Exhibitions – one of the major exhibitors of plasticized human bodies in the United States. Apparently things have become a little hot for Corcoran Labs since the 20/20 broadcast. If you go to the official website for Corcoran Labs, you’ll find their homepage has been replaced by an innocuous “site under construction” message, however, that’s merely a deception. The internal pages of the website still display plasticized human bodies for sale.

The Los Angeles Times reported that on January 24, 2008, the California Assembly voted 50 to 4 to approve legislation that requires exhibitors show documentation that proves deceased people to be put on display as plasticized models actually consented to be exhibited. The bill’s sponsor, Chinese-American Assemblywoman Fiona Ma (D-San Francisco), said “Although plastination was intended to advance medicine and science, many entrepreneurs are using plastination to make outrageous profits by dissecting, mutilating and parading unwilled bodies around the world and in our state – asking for consent and verification is not too much to ask.”

On March 14, 2008, the California Science Center located in downtown L.A.’s Exposition Park, will premier Gunther von Hagens’, BodyWorlds 3 & The Story of the Heart. While Gunther von Hagens insists that the human cadavers used in his exhibits are from people who willfully donated their bodies to be displayed, and that none of the corpses are executed prisoners from China, his money-making blockbuster exhibit of flayed and plasticized human beings still presents troubling moral questions.

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