Memento mori.

First, the good news: Our Body: the Universe Within isn’t particularly gruesome. Anyone who’s suffered through an R-rated horror movie has seen far worse. (Hell, I’ve taken grosser things out of a supermarket chicken.) Nor is it disturbing; if you’ve studied an anatomy textbook you’ve already seen it all, and besides, they ease you into it — your first body is a skeleton. Who hasn’t seen Mr. Bones a million times? True, this skeleton has a nose — odd, that — but still, he’s as much a Halloween decoration as a freak show.

The skeleton is posed sitting on a chair, contemplating a skull on a table in front of it. And so we have our theme.

The rude way to describe “Our Body” is to call it a freak show, and at its basest level, that’s what it is. There’s nothing really new here; like I said, it’s all in “Gray’s Anatomy,” and the cadavers could probably be recreated by Hollywood special-effects artists. What makes this a big-ticket exhibit is the fact these are real bodies, were real people. That’s the freak; that’s the hook.

I guessed I skipped the CCD classes where we got the Catholic take on the body, because I don’t have a shred of sentiment about human remains. Once life ends, all that seems necessary to me is that what’s left behind be treated with respect, and according to the wishes of the deceased, or the survivors. A Tibetan sky burial doesn’t seem any better or worse than the standard embalming/two days’ calling/funeral/burial/cement vault ritual of American death. Both my parents were cremated and I expect to be, too, but I understand it’s not for everyone. A woman once told me her grandmother lost a leg to diabetes some time before she died, and spent her final months fretting that she might spend eternity in Heaven with one leg.

I suppose the bodies in “Our Body” are treated respectfully. You’re not allowed to touch them, and the guides make a speech about no photos and so forth. The attitude of the attendees is pretty hushed and quiet, exacerbated by the darkness of the space — only the displays are lit.

But there were odd moments, too. The first woman you encounter is posed with her heels raised, as though in high-heeled shoes, and she’s holding a shopping bag in her hand (huh?). Enough small detail of the original corpses remain — ragged fingernails, eyelashes, pubic hair — to remind you that these are not special-effects dummies, but real people, and that raises more questions than it answers. We were told, going up in the elevator, that “all the bodies are from China,” and “all gave their permission, or their families did.” And that’s it, and sorry, that’s not enough for me. I wanted to know what this man did for a living, how tall this woman was. Did she have children? Did he smoke? Did she like to wear high heels? Did they know exactly what they were agreeing to when they donated their bodies to science? And the fact China has an atrocious human-rights record? This doesn’t bother anyone? James’ comment in the previous thread about “flayed political prisoners” could just as easily be true as not.

But I tried to put as much of this out of my mind, and just appreciate the miracle of our bodies (which, by the time you’re my age, have become somewhat less miraculous). The arrangements of muscles over bone, the elegant detail of a flayed hand, the traceries of nerves and ligaments — this all had the power of fine art, and it was easy to see it as such. There were poster-size cards telling us of the first physicians to use dissection to understand anatomy (the Egyptians) and who set the discovery on the back burner for a few hundred years (the Catholic church, ca-ching!). For all the warnings about “intensity,” I found it more interesting than anything else.

I lingered over two cases in particular — one showing the blood vessels, and only the blood vessels, of the lungs, and another showing the blood vessels, and only the blood vessels, of the entire body. The latter was particularly striking, a human-shaped cloud of red cotton wool; I looked at it for a long time, tracing major blood vessels as they branched into smaller and smaller ones, finally becoming a tangle of capillaries. And then I started thinking: How’d they do that? How do you dissect a body in such a way that you can extract only the circulatory system, seemingly without major damage?

I asked an attendant at the exit, who had the answer: First a polymer solution, dyed red, is pumped in at the carotid artery, until it permeates the entire body, at which point it is allowed to harden. The body is then dipped in an acid solution until all the flesh, all the bone, all the viscera, is eaten away and only the plastic-preserved blood vessels remain.

Now I really wonder who agreed to this.

There was a second part of the exhibit on another floor, which broke tissue down to its microscopic elements. This was also where two of the truly bothersome (for me) parts were displayed. One was a 15-foot long case in which an entire body had been cut horizontally into one-inch sections (like you’d chop a carrot for a salad) and spread out, so you could look at each layer, a human CAT scan. After all the slicing and dicing upstairs, it just seemed redundant. And in another case was an entire human skin, all in one piece (slit up the back), tanned and preserved.

“Hmm,” I said to the woman next to me. “‘Silence of the Lambs.'” “I was thinking ‘Texas Chainsaw Massacre,’ myself,” she replied.

By now it was time to rejoin my daughter’s field trip, which had been doing a hands-on activity in another room. They were into their free-time exploration, and were mostly planning what sort of gift-shop plunder they’d beg for. I looked at their twitchy little selves and was grateful there were no children’s bodies in the exhibit.

(Correction: There were fetuses and a few newborns said to have “genetic diseases” that presumably led to either stillbirth or early death. But no fourth-graders, thankfully.)

Posted at 4:18 pm in Current events |

5 responses to “Memento mori.”

  1. deb said on February 3, 2007 at 6:53 pm

    i’m posting from a nintendo wii! bernie and your godchild say yo.

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  2. vince said on February 4, 2007 at 1:39 am

    There are two of these exhibits going around the country. Do you know if your show came most recently from Seattle?

    Portland is getting one of these shows… and the museum made a point of saying they were getting the show that was NOT in Seattle.. and implied that the show coming here is much more reputable about obtaining their bodies.

    I too have serious questions about how much consent the Chinese actually granted.

    On the one hand this sounds fascinating, on the other, I’m not sure I really -want- to see this.

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  3. nancy said on February 4, 2007 at 11:12 am

    Actually, I’m told there are three, and that the one I saw — “Our Body: The Universe Within” — is considered the tamest of the bunch. The most notorious is “Body Worlds,” and is generally the one that goes through the biggest cities.

    I thought this Metro Times story covered the whole issue, from logistics to ethics, better than any local media. Bonus for ex-KWFers, Vince: The U of M has a plastination lab. How we missed that on the seminar circuit is beyond me.

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  4. Connie said on February 4, 2007 at 11:36 pm

    The one I saw in Chicago was “Body Worlds”, and that red puff cloud of one body’s blood vessel that you describe really struck me as well.

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  5. Connie said on February 4, 2007 at 11:36 pm

    Meant to add way to go Colts!

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