I see dead people

The other day, a block or so from my apartment, I saw a human body sliced into one-inch slabs, like so many Christmas hams, “bone-in,” stretched over a 15-foot spread. He was in good company, too. Almost two dozen other┬ácorpses were scattered around him, along with a smorgasboard of miscellaneous organs and bones.

Maybe this sounds like a typical New York story. After all, I live near the seaport, which before it was taken over by the same mall virus responsible for the tourist nightmares of Faneuil Hall and Harvard Square, was the setting of some great Gotham noir. (It’s still home to New York’s coolest waterfront architecture, if you look beneath the commercial makeover.) Or maybe my story sounds like something you could have come across in DUMBO fifteen years ago. My friend Karen wrote a screenplay once in which a corpse plunges from a helicopter into a soccer game in that little riverside park in DUMBO, its teeth and hands removed to prevent identification. Or there was the taxidermist I met a while back (she was wearing a coon skin cap and mouse brooch, both of which she had done herself), who said that when she moved to DUMBO in the early 90s she stumbled — literally stumbled — over a human arm, with shoulder blade attached, in the middle of a dark, rain-soaked street. By the time she had gone home, called the cops, and returned, it was gone.

My bodies weren’t mob hits, of course. These were legitimate dead people, part of BODIES: The Exhibition, whose advertisements — featuring a meaty red and pink cadaver posed to recall Rodin’s “Thinker” — seem to stare at you from every bus stop shelter in the city. Well, these were sort of legitimate dead people, anyway. They were obtained from a Chinese medical university, which in turn had obtained them from police morgues, where they had been unclaimed by friend or family. Homeless people? Political prisoners? It’s impossible to tell, but that hasn’t kept hundreds of thousands of people like me from shelling out big dough to see them conduct orchestras, play football, or just stand there, buzz-sawed in half, guts hanging out.

the splits

All in good taste, we were assured by the likable representative who ushered our group into the first exhibit hall. Before we entered, someone pressed him on the controversy about the bodies’ origins, and he responded that while this exhibition doesn’t believe any of its bodies belonged to people who were tortured to death, even if they had been he’s sure their participation in the exhibit is a redemptive postscript, a happy ending to their sad stories: having had their blood and fat replaced by some kind of polymer plastic, having had fluorescent dyes pumped through their organs to highlight various functions, now they can share their shells with millions, contributing to the education of endless streams of middle-class Americans in New York, Tampa, and — coming soon — Houston. Along the way, of course, they’ll put big bucks in the pockets of Premier Exhibition, Inc.’s proprietors and shareholders, who were already doing quite well, it seems, with their touring treasures of the Titanic.

But back to the bodies. In spite of the abundance of sad-looking sex organs at every turn (mostly male, since the exhibit really only features women, as Stephanie and Nicole pointed out, once you get to the sections on fat and reproduction), the atmosphere inside the exhibit is respectful, even church-like. Not a single person humming “Everybody needs somebody sometime.” No one smirking at what I thought was the most unfortunate fellow on display, his beef-jerkey muscles and tendons severed, fanned out like turkey feathers, waving ever so slightly in the soft breeze of the dully humming ventilation system. Viewers filed past cases of cross-sectioned bones and placards bearing nifty body facts (you will pee 12,000 gallons in your lifetime); they clustered like gallery goers around the full-bodied centerpieces. No one so much as broke a smile. The whole spectacle conjures up a combination of just-plain-eerie (after all, these are real bodies that belonged to real people, people who were living and breathing what, maybe two years ago?) and eerily reverent.

kicking a soccer ball

In spite of a few scattered references to organic evolution on some of the displays, it’s not hard to imagine religious attendees walking away bearing witness to the amazing work of the Divine Architect of the Universe. It’s not hard, either, to imagine old Catholic ladies fingering their rosaries and wishing they could kidnap the little preserved embryos and fetuses in the reproduction room, if for no other reason than to wave them in the faces of passers-by outside your local Planned Parenthood. It’s hard to tell if the exhibit attracted a certain demographic above others. Religious? Secular? Gentile, Jew, Muslim? Tourist? Hipster? Everyone I saw seemed in awe, craning their necks over the jewel-store display cases, trying to get an even closer look at this tobacco-stained lung, that stone-filled kidney. We’ve watched the lines on the weekends for the last couple months, and it ain’t just the Old Navy American Flag types in those long lines, seven people wide, snaking around the block, past the Gap and J Crew, almost to the invisible line that separates the mall from the real heart of the seaport neighborhood, the invisible line tourists don’t cross because the buildings across the street don’t contain any chain stores with recognizable names. It’s clear that plenty of people besides tourists — people who appeared impressively diverse, though united, of course, in their ability to cover the cost of admission — wanted to get in touch with their inner selves.

For the most part, for the first hour or so I was there, I was in awe too, respectful as a school child, craning my own neck for a closer look at the concentric lamellar osteons and interstitial lamellae that make up our compact bone tissue. I’d seen regular old biology class cadavers before. My first couple years of college, money-strapped as I was, I worked the night shift as a janitor in the science building on campus. I used to hate sweeping out the cadaver classrooms, six or seven body bags pressed up against the walls, reminding me why I’d never wanted to be a doctor. I’d whir through the room as fast as I could, collecting the day’s debris with my dustmop. On the top floor of the building, which housed the experimental animal labs, we had an incinerator for burning trash and animal carcasses (and that one poor live mouse I found in a trashcan of dead chickens, but good God, what was I supposed to do?). On occasion we’d do a real nice job of scraping the oven clean and it would double as a crematorium for the good people who had dedicated their bodies to science. We didn’t want anything odd — no cancer-filled syringes, no monkey skulls — to be mixed in with whatever went home in the bag to their loved ones.

The awe I felt along with everyone else at the BODIES exhibit was, in part, directed at the amazing physical system we possess — the millions of details, all the little things that can go wrong but more often than not go right. Is anything in the world more beautiful than human alveoli? I was amazed at the millions of years of evolution that had culminated in this human organism — what seems to me, most of the time, like a miraculous accumulation of accidents rather than something naturally selected or intelligently designed. I was amazed that I was living — that I could go home and eat (I ate vegetarian that particular night), read, spend time with my kids, feel emotions, have sex — while these poor corpses had to stay there with the lights out. Did their parents and lovers and children even know where they were?

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By the time I got to the PT Barnum stuff — the conjoined twins and diseased duodenums, the cancer of the penis — I’d turned inward to think about the metaphors we use to talk about our bodies: metaphors of possession, of interiority. And it’s not just people who believe in dualistic religious systems, their bodies like little gloves, animated by little body-shaped souls. Even we secular humanist atheists do it. What does it mean to say “my body” instead of “me”? To say you want “a new body”? To talk about how someone “feels inside”? (Like a pork loin, from the looks of it.) I went in thinking, “This is what I look like inside; peel me like a plum and this is what I look like.” But I left thinking, “This is what I am.” A body. One whose lower back hurts at night, one a little shorter and skinnier than I would have preferred, one who could be cared for a little better, probably, but one who enjoys pretty decent health nonetheless. One whose heart will give out someday, whose breath will eventually stop, whose brain will run out of batteries. I also had a new appreciation for why I feel so great after yoga. It’s not so much about clearing your mind or centering yourself or any of that new age bullshit. It’s a full body workout, from the inside out, opening up the bones of your skeletal system, giving your organs room to breathe, getting in touch with the relationship between your respiratory system and all the other parts and systems of your body, your self. I was reminded of the kickass yoga studio I went to a couple summers ago in Philly, with its apparent abundance of sexy young medical students, which led one of the teachers to call out new poses using Latin names for body parts.

sliced thin

The awe wears off after a while in there. I’d probably go again if I had a free ticket, don’t get me wrong, but some of the shit at the end gets to be so gruesome that the exhibitors’ constant claims about respect for the dead start to ring hollow. By that point I wanted to gasp for fresh air, feeling like I’d been in an unrefrigerated meat locker for two hours, and the corpse cut into sandwich slices made me wonder about the mental health of the people who carved up all these poor cadavers for a living. All I could visualize was the guy you’d find in the darkest back corner of a comic book store, looking a little like Hagrid, wearing a sweat-stained Megadeath t-shirt, motorcycle goggles on, wielding his saw like something from a slasher flick. Who is that dead person, whose afterlife will be spent in plastic, a tanglible illustration of what doctors can only see when they do an MRI? I get impatient with Christians who worry more about the next life than the realities of this one, but the tour guide’s reassurances riled me for the same reason: shouldn’t someone have been worried about what happened to this guy before he got to spend his afterlife sliced and served up in such a neat-o, if educational, setting?

3 responses to “I see dead people”

  1. Rachel says:

    This exhibit came to Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry last spring under the title BodyWorlds. Besides being an excellent big-city attraction for my visiting family (something for everyone!), the show seemed to be the perfect mixture of aesthetics, science, and ‘ick factor.’ It was like a collaborative fever dream of Damien Hirst and Thomas Harris. In addition to lots of segmented and flayed humans, visitors could see anatomized animals–including a massive horse rearing on its hind legs, frozen for eternity.

    At the end of exhibit there was a little table where you could sign up to donate your own body to the polymerization process. When I looked at the list, about a hundred names were on it. Weird.

  2. Bryan Waterman says:

    Maybe it’s more appealing to be flayed and in public forever (a nice metaphor for celebrity) than to be moulderin’ in the grave. Maybe it’s better to lose your skin than to decompose.

    I think BodyWorlds is technically a different exhibit, but it’s the same basic principle. BodyWorlds is in Philly now, I think. These guys tried to make themselves into the “good” exhibit–BodyWorlds, they implied, were the ones with the corpses of really mysterious origins.

  3. Stephanie Wells says:

    I saw the “Bodies” (as opposed to “BodyWorlds”) exhibit in Atlanta this spring, and to corroborate the distinction between the “good” and “bad” origin of the bodies, several of the museum visitors I saw were absolutely begging to sign up somewhere to donate their bodies to the exhibit after their deaths–but the curators flat-out refused, repeatedly, insisting that it was not only logistically absurd to presume that in 50 years these donors would be living at the same address, but also legally and even ethically problematic to sign up for something so controversial that might not come to pass until the volunteer was five decades and who knows how many generations of moral reconfiguration away from the day he or she signed up. Apparently the “BodyWorlds” people had no such qualms if they were takin’ names. High-minded as the “Bodies” curators may have thought they were, though, they didn’t hesitate to trot out cultural stereotypes of body norms by putting on display a woman (why not a man? all the athletes they displayed were men) to demonstrate “obesity.” Okay, she was a little thick in her spliced-open middle, but she had maybe an inch of an extra layer of the yellow fat around her–max. Is this really “obese,” docta?

    And did anyone else find it creepy that although all of the bodies are clearly Chinese, which the exhibit itself declares, they jammed blue glass eyes into some of them?