from BabagaNewz Magazine, Adar One 5768 / February 2008
A skateboarder is frozen midair, performing a onearmed handstand on a ramp. He is not plastic, but a real dead body, naked, with the skin removed and his muscles and tissues revealed. Part of the "Body Worlds" traveling exhibits of real human corpses, the skateboarder and other bodies are preserved using a process called plastination. Publicized as health education, the exhibits have attracted nearly 25 million viewers around the world and have grossed over $200 million. "Body Worlds" will give [people] access to the many miracles of the human body and help them understand their physical selves," says Dr. Stanley Korenman of the UCLA Medical Center. Human rights activists, on the other hand, see the exhibits as a violation of human dignity. "The dead don't deserve to be treated like this," says Aaron Ginsburg, picketing outside an exhibit. "And the living are demeaned by going to see it."
The show displays a full array of bodies and body parts in various poses and varying states of health and illness in order to teach visitors about the complexity of the human body and the importance of taking care of your health. There are glass cases that contain cancerous lungs (with bins nearby designated as cigarette dropoff boxes for those inspired to quit) and a case of cirrhotic livers designed to encourage visitors not to drink. The bodies posed in different positions, like the skateboarder, are meant to educate the general public about anatomy and how our bodies function. "We believe that when people understand more about how the body works and how it can break down," say "Body Worlds" representatives, "they are more likely to choose healthy and sustainable lifestyles."
VIOLATION OF HUMAN DIGNITY
Despite the possible educational benefits, controversy surrounds the exhibition. Ethicists accuse Gunther von Hagens, inventor of plastination and the show's developer, of running a "freak show," and some have even dubbed him "Dr. Frankenstein" for posing bodies in artistic positions. One exhibit, for example, recreates artist Salvador Dali's grotesque painting "Burning Giraffe" of a woman standing on stilts with drawers in her legs. "Perhaps people are gaining something when they see the exhibit," says Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein, professor of Jewish law and ethics at Loyola Law School. "But every time you use the human body for something that is not immediately connected with saving a life, human life becomes cheaper and cheaper."
THE JEWISH VIEW
We are not allowed to take our bodies for granted. Rather, the Torah commands us to protect our bodies and guard our health (shmirat haguf, see Devarim 4:9). Taking care of our bodies and living healthy lives is a mitzvah, and if the exhibit succeeds in promoting more healthful living, it may be valuable. However, the Torah also commands us to bury a corpse right away, and not to leave it on display overnight (Devarim 21:23). Because people are created in the image of God, the human body has inherent sanctity. God is dishonored in the dishonor of the divine image associated with the human bodies displayed in "Body Worlds" (see Rashi on Devarim 21:23).