Eventually, we all leave our bodies behind.
The first time that this occurred to me, I was, I think, nine years old, and my parents and I had flown to Albuquerque, New Mexico to meet with my podiatrist and discuss the prospect of another surgery. I’d had five already, but after each, the bones in my left foot had begun to twist themselves back into the classic “clubbed” formation, giving me both a noticeable limp and pain when walking.
I remember Dr. Sherman as a kind man, smiling beneath his wide mustache as he went over the various options with my parents. I didn’t pay much attention as they discussed recovery time or the surgical breaking of bones or Sherman’s estimation of the need for more surgeries when I got older; I preferred, instead, to examine the landscape of plaster bumps on the cream colored examination room walls, but my ears pricked when the doctor mentioned “a small potential for amputation.”
He must have noticed my suddenly fixed attention, as he then addressed me directly. “That means…” he began, looking for the right words to explain the concept to a nine year old. “We might have to surgically remove your foot. It’s a small chance, but something to bear in mind. You would, of course, be given a prosthetic… a false foot that would let you walk and even run.”
I thought about it for a moment, then asked, “But what would you do with my real foot?”
“Hmm…,” the doctor’s expression turned solemn. “Do you have a dog?”
They didn’t wind up amputating my foot– just another surgery that didn’t quite do the trick– but the doctor’s words stuck with me. Not the grotesque punchline, but the idea of my left foot being removed from my body. In my imagination, after the amputation I would be sent home with the foot floating in a jar. I would keep it under the bed, maybe in the closet. Show it to friends. I already felt that the foot, with its malformed shape, its slight throb of ache and its intermittent needs for medical attention, was somehow apart from me; a chunk of myself that I wouldn’t mind getting rid of. But still, you know, keeping around for old time’s sake.
As for the dog, my mother bought him a squeaky toy in the shape of a human foot, but he was old, and hardly played with it. Within the year he had died. My father wrapped up his body in a black trash bag, and carried the stiff, suddenly anonymous mass into the woods behind the house where we buried it. Soon after, the woods were torn down and the earth tilled up to make way for a housing development. I suppose a jumble of dog bones and plastic bag now lies beneath a cheap suburban house in the Lake Mija neighborhood of Seabrook, Texas.
A few years later, it was my father who died, suddenly and unexpectedly, of a heart attack. My mother and sister picked me up from school and when we got home he was long gone, carried away by the EMTs that had stormed the house that spring morning. All that was left was a small drop of blood on the bedroom carpet from when a tech had inserted a syringe during the last failed effort to save his life. He was cremated, and I never saw the body.
I read somewhere that when a pet dies, the owner should allow the other animals of the household a moment to see the corpse of their companion. A sniff, a gentle pawing perhaps, the theory goes, and they will understand and accept what has happened. It’s one of those things that people accept on faith because it makes a certain amount of sense, but there is no research behind it. An internet search doesn’t turn up anything in the way of hard facts or statistics, but it does turn up anecdotes of dogs, frantic and whimpering, racing through a suddenly quieter house in search of their lost friend; bereft mares pawing at the pile of straw where their departed foal once slept; cats that mewl and pace in a doorway, awaiting the return of their feline housemate.
Is it perhaps the same for people? Of course, we can be told of a death, and the conscious mind, at least, can be made to understand. But somewhere below, in the dark places of the brain, the sudden absence remains inexplicable. He was here. Now he is not. Where did he go?
He left us for another family. He was a secret agent and had to go on a last minute mission that he couldn’t tell us about. He just got lost, somehow, he doesn’t know where, but lost for a long, long time. But he’s back now, and he’s sorry for leaving, and he won’t do it again. The dreams start out comforting, but then they ache; then they are angry. Searching, pawing, howling; the animal of my subconscious pacing the corners of the mind.
It has become an increasingly rare thing to see a dead, human body in our society. It is, I suppose, a testament to the compartmentalization of our culture that one can experience the death of a close loved one and never actually see the corpse. There are people to take care of that now, places where corpses go so we don’t have to deal with them. Even open casket funerals, once a hallmark of the American death experience, have increasingly given way to body-less memorial services followed by an unattended cremation.
Where once a community came together around a physical, tangible body, even sitting beside it in a family parlor while the night before the burial crept by, there is now, often, only an abstract absence. People still gather for death, but more and more there is an empty space where the corpse once was.
Dr. Death wears a black fedora, typically cocked at a rakish angle. There are, to my knowledge, no photographs taken of him since the 1980s in which the fedora does not perch atop his delicately featured and archetypically germanic face, whether he is dressed in a darkly debonaire and impeccably tailored suit or in the surgeon’s motley of scrubs and mask. It is his trademark, an homage, he has told interviewers, to Rembrandt’s oil painting The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp.
Dr. Death has offered this painting to us as an insight into his world, so let us consider it. Painted in 1632, it is a hazed study of a Dutch surgeon’s public dissection lecture. Tulp, a prominent anatomist, stands bedecked in black cloak, broad brimmed hat and white collar, pulling apart the sinews of a cadaver’s arm with a stage-magicians aplomb as an audience of leering figures leans in with ghoulish fascination. Notably, only two of these figures are surgeons. The others are noblemen who have paid for the privilege of attending the lecture. Rembrandt’s shadows settle over them, pooling especially upon the eyes of the corpse.
Of course, Dr. Death is not our fedora-and-art-enthusiast’s given name. It is rather a title bestowed upon the 63-year-old Dr. Gunther von Hagens by the European media, who have both hounded him and reveled in his sensational exploits for over a decade. But the name is fitting: he is a doctor, and death is his domain.
His seminal moment came in the late 1970s at a lunch counter in Heidelberg, Germany. Von Hagens had completed his medical education only a few years before, and had by then realized that he was not interested in living people, but rather the bodies they left behind. That afternoon, on a lunch break from his position as a research assistant investigating new ways to preserve human tissue at the local university, he stood at the aforementioned counter and waited for a sandwich. As he watched, the worker cut the meat into thin sheets with a deli slicer, and inspiration struck. Why not, he thought, apply the same process to a human kidney or other organs? Then take the slices and encase them in sheets of plastic? This would allow researchers to handle them, share them, and utilize the same slices over and over, whereas at the time students and researchers were forced to use a new, fresh organ for each occasion. Perhaps, he thought, even infuse the slices with the plastic somehow, and keep the decay process at bay forever?
Upon his return to the lab, he requested funds for a deli slicer of his own and began to experiment with different methods of preserving tissues in plastic. By 1977, he had perfected his process, which he called “plastination”. As he had predicted that day in the butcher shop, penetrating the organic tissues with a polymer such as silicone rubber allowed them to be preserved indefinitely; what’s more, the tissues were dry to the touch, and could be manipulated and positioned. He applied his process first to organs, than moved on to limbs, and then to full human bodies.
Imagine Dr. Death now, leaning over that first whole human corpse, preparing it for the plastination process. In a grim coincidence, it is actually the body of a close friend of his, a fellow surgeon who donated his body to science.
He begins by cutting away the skin.
Now, some 30 years later, Gunther von Hagens is a multimillionaire, and I am standing in a dilapidated convention center hall in Albuquerque, surrounded by plenty of bodies and body parts to look at. It is, perhaps, too convenient to ascribe the morbid impulse that brought me here to a lingering, unresolved wish to find, even after all these years, the last remnants of my father, but I cannot help thinking of him as I examine one of the de-skinned, posed human corpses that make up the touring show Bodies: The Exhibition. Oddly, I am not thinking of him because this corpse has inspired thoughts of death. It is actually the opposite, the object in front of me seems removed from both life and death, somehow floating free of the human existence it once lived, as well as the conclusive silence of the grave where, had things been different, it may have rested. As I peer into its ambiguous expression (slackly open mouth, neither smiling nor frowning, eyebrows raised in a slight hint of surprise), I am trying to find some way to connect this peculiarly inhuman mannequin to the real, dead people I have known.
It is one of the strangest things I have ever seen. Its glass eyes gaze blankly from a passive, skinless face; the eyelids, the curved ellipse of eyebrows, the flesh of a nose and lips like thin twists of modeling clay, are all that remains of its identifiable features, the rest of it is a mass of naked musculature, red and textured somewhere between beef jerky and stretched, aged rubber.
In the hall, more of these skinless men and women stand raw and close enough for visitors to touch (but please don’t touch, warn the repeated signs), posed into the same approximations of life that you see in the gauzy photos of insurance brochures and in slow motion montage in psychiatric drug ads: kicking a soccer ball, throwing a discus, or, like the one I am currently inspecting, clutching a football. The musculature of each is exposed, in some places peeled back and pinned to highlight a certain bone structure, or an organ. Music, new age and atmospheric, plays in the background; soft lights shimmer in abstract designs on the cracked and stained convention center floor; flat screen monitors hang in front of red partitioning curtains, playing an endless loop of anatomy-oriented CGI-animation as a friendly, authoritative narrator offers pearls of wisdom like “You only have one body. . . One amazing body. . . Without your body, you would be nothing at all.”
It’s the middle of the morning in the middle of the week, and I am, surprisingly, one of a crowd of attendees. There are a number of business people, name tags still pinned to their chest as they kill an hour or so before the next event at their conference; many families, sets of parents and teenagers mostly, but at least one with a child approximately age 10; and a handful of medical professionals or students still wearing scrubs.
Milling through the hall, waiting for clusters of people to move so that I can look at the specimens, I wonder why so many of us have made it here on a day when Albuquerque museums are typically empty.
Maybe there is a hint in the show’s marketing. Although the exhibition’s producers argue that its purpose is educational, the advertisement flyers that litter the counters of local coffee shops, the billboards the loom over every major road in town, and the posters taped to store windows seem to be making an appeal that has little to do with offering a chance for the general public to learn about anatomy. Bodies: The Exhibition, the ad-copy proclaims,FEATURING ACTUAL HUMAN BODIES. In case you missed it, the “human” is in bold, just above the image of one of the show’s flayed-cadaver stars. This event is about looking at corpses.
And that is certainly why I am here. There is no denying my own ghoulish streak; things that offer a glimpse of the dead have always fascinated me. In every place I’ve lived, I visit the graveyards, seeking especially along the ragged edge of the old cemeteries for the overgrown and dilapidated plots, for shattered headstones and sunken ground from long-collapsed coffins, for crypts and mausoleums that were erected as monuments for eternity, but have now lapsed into neglect and forgetfulness, their doors pried open by vandals, their human remains jumbled and scattered . When my wife and I taught English in the Czech Republic, weekend after weekend I dragged her off to see the country’s grisliest sights– the Sedlec Ossuary, where some 70,000 skeletons have been assembled into pyramids and coats-of-arms and chandeliers and monstrances in a tiny underground vault, to the Church of St. James in Prague, where a purported thief’s mummified arm hangs from a hook on the wall, a testament to the vengeful and miraculously vicelike grip of a statue of Mary. I am drawn to these sights, these memento mori that have escaped, or were never subject to, my culture’s inclination to hide the dead away from view.
As I watch the visitors mill around a room of plasticized bodies, it is clear that I am not alone in hunger for tangible reminders of death. Can it be a coincidence that as our cultural separation from the persistent fact of death grows more stark, movies grow increasingly gory, that the top-selling teenaged fantasy novels revolve around love affairs with vampires, that some form of collective anxiety is expressed through a never-ending barrage of movies, novels, video games and comic books where the dead rise en massearound us like a suppurating dam burst? That touring exhibits promising “actual human bodies” rake in millions of dollars annually?
Gunther Von Hagens’ first inkling that there might be a market for his plastinated creations beyond the needs of academia came in 1983. The Catholic Church, suddenly uncertain whether a 900 year old miracle could still be trusted, contacted Von Hagens’ with a proposal to use his technique to preserve the shriveled heel of St. Hildegarde. Although the holy relic was not eventually entrusted into his care, Von Hagens was intrigued by the thought that there may be commercial possibilities for his work.
This idea was bolstered when, one night, he entered his lab to finish a few neglected tasks and found one of the building’s janitors gawking at a group of plastinated limbs laid out on a table. Surprised and delighted at the layman’s interest, Von Hagens, now head of his own company, considered for the first time a public exhibition. In 1988, he mounted a small display of organs in a hall in Pforzheim, Germany, and after 14,000 people attended in a two week period he made plans for a much larger showing that would feature whole cadavers.
In 1995, Body Worlds: An Exhibition of Real Human Bodies opened at the University of Juntendo in Japan. Von Hagens’ intention had been to host the show closer to home, but he had difficulty finding a space to exhibit his retinue of cadavers for the general public. Continental museums were uncomfortable with the idea of corpses on display, and besides, it seemed likely that the show would only appeal to a small portion of the population, not the families that are such institutions’ bread and butter.
But then, 400,000 visitors attended the Japanese Body Worlds show during its two month limited engagement. The show’s run was extended and the people kept coming. It was a phenomenal success, bringing a total of 2.9 million attendees and staying open 3 years after its original closing date. In Von Hagens’ words, “Everything changed for me after Japan.” Suddenly museums in Germany, Austria, Switzerland and the UK were clamoring for a Body Worlds of their own.
As the exhibits toured throughout Europe and the United States, public interest in the shows only seemed to grow. Von Hagens, with his black fedora and undeniable showman’s charisma, became a celebrity, granting numerous interviews and appearing in a host of television segments featuring his plastinated creations. In 2002, his carnival-barker instincts stoked a fire of controversy when he, in perhaps another homage to Doctor Nicolaes Tulp, announced plans to perform the first public autopsy in Britain in over 170 years. Despite an outcry and concerns that the performance might be illegal, the event’s tickets quickly sold out, and an audience of 500 filled the gallery as Von Hagens sawed through the skull of a 72-year-old man, and many more watched the event’s live broadcast on their televisions at home. It was then that Von Hagens’ nickname “Dr. Death”, already in use in his native Germany, gained international currency, putting him, perhaps unfairly, in the dubious ranks of other Dr. Deaths–Jack Kevorkian, Erik Pianka, Josef Mengele.
Interest in Body Worlds now skyrocketed, and the original plastination lab in Germany was no longer capable of keeping up with demand. Von Hagens opened two more plastination centers, one in Kyrgyzstan and one in Dailan, China, locations chosen for having ready access to skilled, low cost technicians.
It was at the Chinese plant that Von Hagens encountered his first real problems. One of the factory managers, seeing an opportunity to capitalize on a hungry and extremely lucrative marketplace, defected from the Body Worlds company and opened up a rival plant in the same city. Unconcerned with the rigorous consent process that Von Hagens insisted on utilizing to obtain bodies for the exhibits, the new plant instead purchased unclaimed corpses from the Chinese Bureau of Police, which, ominously, does not keep documents detailing the circumstances of the subjects’ deaths, leading some to speculate that they may be those of executed prisoners. Von Hagens attempted to sue the new company, but the murky channels of Chinese intellectual property law rebuffed him at every turn. As the new factory began churning out cut-rate cadavers, rival exhibition companies, hungry for a share in Body Worlds’ success and emboldened by Von Hagens’ legal difficulties, began to mount their own exhibits in England, Korea and the United States.
The show I am attending in Albuquerque is one of the knock offs. Created and promoted by the Atlanta based Premier Exhibitions, Bodies: The Exhibition is, in many ways, a fun house mirror of Von Hagens’ Body Worlds. Where Body Worlds plays exclusively in high-profile museums in major cities throughout the world, Bodies: The Exhibition is more likely to exhibit in shopping malls, convention centers, casinos and other “nontraditional” venues. Where Body Worlds is renowned for the professional quality of its displays–the angelic lighting, the pitch perfect mood music, and the immaculately presented cadavers themselves–Bodies: The Exhibition, though it apes these trappings, is beset by the issues that come with its second-string venues– cracked floors, poor lighting, cavernous spaces partitioned off by temporary walls. However, despite the shoddy settings of its exhibits, and the questionable origins of its cadavers, Premier Exhibitions recently posted a quarterly profit of 4.9 million dollars.
Circling around the room, I return to the first body. It stands upon a wooden block on wheels, a football tucked into the nook of its arms. I am surprised at how small it is, even on its pedestal it is still shorter than I am, and the epicanthic fold of its eyelids is a disturbing indication of its asian gray-market origin. A family is beside me, examining it, laughing in surprise at its nakedness, pointing at the shriveled penis that hangs between its fleshless legs. In the second room, an even more diminutive cadaver stands with a conductor’s baton in its fingers, the muscles pulled away on much of its body to show the spaghetti-like strands of nervous system as they stretch across its chest, its legs, its arms, all the way to its fingers. In the third room wait the majority of the cadavers; these, too, are all short statured and possessed of epicanthic eyelids. In one corner, a cadaver prepares to serve a volleyball. In another, a woman is cut lengthwise into thirds, the portions of body standing upright, side by side. The centerpiece of the room is a man sliced thin as deli meat, each of the several dozen prosciutto sections of the body sandwiched between glass and suspended in a case.
In Von Hagens’ first exhibitions, the bodies had been displayed in a prosaic fashion: standing straight, arms at their sides, bare-muscled faces forward. Visitors complained that they seemed cold and frightening, somehow blind in their absent expressions; too much like dead things. One of the hallmarks of the plastination process is that once a cadaver has been impregnated with the polymer, it can be held in virtually any position, and as Body Worldsexhibits opened in Europe, Von Hagens positioned the cadavers into more dynamic poses: kicking a soccer ball; throwing a football; playing badminton. “I took the fear out and put the humor in,” he explained, and for the most part, visitors responded favorably to the more whimsically posed corpses.
When the rival exhibitions began to appear, they mimicked these poses, but Von Hagens upped the ante. Basketball and badminton now bored him, and he pushed further. Soon he was making the bodies dance in ways that his competition had difficulty keeping up with: cadavers as ballerinas, playing in poker games, hanging from gymnastic rings, contemplating chess with skull opened and brain exposed, a rider on flayed and rearing horseback, a cadaver holding up its preserved skin like a cast-off bathrobe, a corpse lying on its side, belly sliced to show the 8-month fetus inside it, a cadaver in a sleigh pulled by four plastinated reindeer. For Von Hagens, the poses became a trademark, and a point of pride, a chance to express an artistry in his work. As he continued to push into the realm of taboo, however, he was met with increasing outrage. Most recently, the city government of Berlin has threatened to ban one of the shows that feature his latest tableau: two cadavers positioned to simulate sexual intercourse. Von Hagens shrugs his shoulders. “An anatomical exposition without publicity is like a theatre without a program,” he says, and the crowds keep coming.
Turning from the prosciutto-man, I see a small, dark doorway leading from the room. There is a disclaimer beside it, warning that the hall beyond holds specimens of fetuses in various stages of development, all of which “perished in utero from complications during pregnancy.” I go in.
Inside, the fetuses are not plastinated, but rather suspended in bottles of preservation fluid, lit from below and luminescent in the dim room. They range from a minimal speck (only a week of development) to a child brought nearly to term, its skin somehow turned translucent, its skeleton visible. A group of women is in the room with me; they coo as they examine a 6-month fetus. “Look at the tiny fingernails!” one exclaims, in precisely the same tone that I heard my mother use while admiring my newborn son.
This bothers me. Three years before, during hunting season in Chadron, Nebraska, my wife miscarried in her 12th week of pregnancy. The fetus had already died at some unknown point beforehand; an unexpected stillness on the ultrasound monitor prompting the technician to speak her words in measured, careful tones. The doctor prescribed a pill, and that night in a wood paneled motel room, Courtney curled up in pain and squeezed my hand tighter than she ever had before, or would again until the birth of our son two years later.
The doctor had warned us about the tiny fingers, about the possibility that it might look like a miniature baby, but it was undifferentiated among the blood and tissues, and we couldn’t even be sure that that’s what it was until the doctor had confirmed it.
The next morning, while Courtney slept, I walked the dogs in the motel parking lot among the trailer beds holding deer carcasses that bled from the mouth and I cried. I cried for a possibility that had never come into existence, for a person I would never know.
I suddenly don’t want to be in this dark room with its floating fetuses and cooing spectators.
If there is magic in Von Hagens’ process, it is in its ability to remove life, and identity, completely. Some have said that Dr. Death grants his subjects a kind of immortality, but that is certainly the wrong word. Removing the corpse’s skin, pulling the water out and replacing it with plastic, makes the corpse both generic and deader than dead. A dead body in its natural state is only dead by one narrow set of criteria; immediately after human life ceases, the bacteria in the stomach begins to flourish and break out of its former containment, spreading throughout the body and breaking down the tissues, soon joined by outside microbes and insect larvae; a discolored, bloating, explosion of life.
But plastination, which impregnates every cell of tissue with silicone rubber, arrests that process entirely for an indefinite time. The human body, fluid in its transformations throughout its growing life, can now be frozen into an effectively eternal state: transition, transformation, growth, death and change, all banished.
Stripped of identity, sealed off from the natural processes, it becomes hyper-mortal. A state of complete and total death; beyond death. The ultimate objectification.
Outside the fetus room, I hurriedly make my way past the trisected woman, the volleyball player, the racks of individual parts (legs, arms, faces), and toward the exit. There is a cadaver between me and it, and although I want to leave, I can’t help but stop for one last look.
The body is, like most of the others, held in an athletic position, this time as though about to spin a discus. Alarmingly, there are sutures in its flesh, screws set into its arms, a steel mesh covering a hole in its skull and various medical tools jutting out of it on every side. A nearby plaque states that this cadaver showcases the wide variety of treatments that modern medicine can provide for injury, but the overall effect is more like a voodoo doll than a surgical model.
On impulse, I bring my face close to the body, my eyes tracing over the musculature of its face. I want to know who he was, this unknown man who died an unknown death in a far away country. I wonder if his body went unclaimed because he was homeless, or a prisoner, or just alone when he died, one of the millions who left their families behind in rural villages in order to seek out work in the new China’s neon cities. I wonder about the pins and clamps and staples that pierce and grip at his body– were any of them there prior to his trip through the Dailian plastination factory? Or was he just decorated in this way to give a paying audience something to look at?
There are no answers in his face, as impassive and anonymous as all the others, and there is no way to bring his identity back no matter how closely I look. I feel disgusted with myself as I turn away from him.
I walk past the make-shift gift shop and a table where a lab-coated woman offers a plastinated arm for guests to touch, and toward the doors out of the hall. I don’t know what I was looking for when I came here today. I do know that as I walk out into the glare of the Albuquerque sunlight that I have gained nothing and resolved nothing, and that if what brought me here was a desire to be closer to the father who disappeared 20 years ago, or the child that never made it far enough to have a name, plastinated cadavers could never have helped with that. Loss is still loss, and the vague ache somewhere down below would have ached to this day no matter what I had found in the exhibition.
If there is a truth that these anonymous mannequins offer, it has little to do with the mysteries of what awaits us beyond the body, and more to do with the vulnerability of our physical forms themselves. After death, our bodies will belong to something else, whether bacteria feeding on them in an orgy of decomposition, or a mad German doctor using them to build an empire, or a knock-off Atlanta company that purchases corpses and doesn’t care where they come from.
But this is not the kind of truth that brings comfort, nor does it extinguish my desire to understand what can’t be understood. As I pull my car out of the convention center parking lot, I know that the half-felt need that brought me here today is still with me, as intractable as ever. I expect it always will be, until the day I give up the claim on my own body.