Sunday, August 21, 2005

Corpses on parade

Respect for the dead has been a defining characteristic of human culture from its inception, but no longer. Such respect has been demonstrated throughout recorded history by the ritual love and honor shown to those who had died, as displayed in funeral traditions and elaborate gravesites. The exception has been the treatment accorded to one’s enemies, with corpse-mutilation commonly being a way to exhibit vengeance, but this is a sufficiently abhorrent practice to have been outlawed as a war crime by the Geneva Conventions. It is also a crime to “pillage” a body, and how much more “pillaged” could a body be than to be hacked up and displayed in public for financial gain?

In today’s tradition of seeking the ultimate of “side shows,” we now hustle the family on down to the local science museum, and plunk down our Visa card for admission to view the flayed and dissected remains of fellow humans, frozen into “artful” poses, caught in the act of kicking a soccer ball, or split down the middle as with a meat cleaver.

I am beyond aghast, far past astonishment, and deeply distressed that my fellow citizens would find such ultimate objectification of humans to be worthy of their dollars and their admiration. Nor have the persons previously inhabiting these bodies provided their consent to be displayed after death like so many sides of beef, and for profit. There are several of these corpse exhibits making the rounds, and in at least one show, some bodies are of executed prisoners from China, bringing new meaning to “cultural exchange.”

My disgust is not with the bodies themselves, and in fact, I have worked as a technician in a college-level human anatomy lab that included work with cadavers. But we treated those cadavers with reverence and gratitude, for the learning they provided, and we never forgot that they were once living, breathing people whose presence in our lab was a gift beyond measure. Often, visitors knocked, asking to “see the bodies,” but without exception, these requests were denied: the cadavers were seen to possess a right to privacy of sorts; they were not there to be desecrated by being used to titillate the thrill-seekers. The thought of using them to put on a show and charging admission is simply beyond the pale.

Defenders of these corpse-carnivals equate them with the display of mummies, and in this I would agree: I have always found the display of mummies disturbing, simply because it is a violation of the death ritual of their culture. Grave-robbing is grave-robbing, no matter how “educational” or “historical,” and as such it is indefensible. But at least the mummies were usually left fully wrapped, in possession of some degree of privacy.

There are plenty of other ways to learn the subject matter that is supposedly the educational intent of these flesh pavilions. And I really wonder how many people go to these death-porn shows to learn something about the human body, versus how many go solely for the titillation. It is a desecration, and a violation of our deepest cultural values, but if there’s a buck to be made—well I guess that’s really what it’s all about these days. Nothing else seems to matter.