A Healthy Mania for the Macabre: Our Morbid Curiosity

From Richard Harris’ “Morbid Curiosity” to the traveling “Body Worlds” exhibit, artists and scholars challenge our secular culture to confront the awe and wonder of death.

| July/August 2013

I filled out my consent form to donate my body for plastination, and then carried the form around with me for two weeks. I checked the yes box, “I agree that my plastinated body may be used for the medical enlightenment of laypeople and, to this end, exhibited in a museum.” I will be immortal, I imagined, in Gunther von Hagens’ “Body Worlds”—a skinless anatomical écorché for all to see. I hadn’t originally planned an illustrious posthumous career, but von Hagens’ Institute for Plastination played just the right pompous note for me when it printed Immanuel Kant’s enlightenment slogans on its brochure: “What can I know? What should I do? What may I hope for? What is man?”

The brochure assured me that having my dead body frozen and bathed in acetone, and my tissues “impregnated” with silicone, would be a triumph of reason over superstition and put me in a long tradition of principled scientific altruism. The testimonials of other donors sprinkled throughout the brochure echoed one young man’s selfless impulse: “I want to make myself useful, even after death.”

The last step in the bequeathal process was to have a family member sign the donor form. But it was at that point that I began to change my mind. “Body Worlds” (all eight versions) have become the most successful traveling exhibits in the history of science museums. Von Hagens invented his corpse-preservation technique in the 1970s at the University of Heidelberg, and started his museum tours in 1995, subsequently showing his macabre collection to over 32 million people.

In the end, I couldn’t send my donor form because I feared that my family might see my brightly colored, flayed corpse riding a plastinated pony, posed on a tightrope in Las Vegas. Or stretched out to twice my size, juggling bowling pins, riding a unicycle at the Museum of Science and Industry here in Chicago.

The aesthetic of “Body Worlds”—somewhere between Jeff Koons and velvet Elvis paintings—seemed entirely wrong for my final act. And even von Hagens seems to know that family members should not see their loved ones in such spectacle, else his brochure wouldn’t spill so much ink reassuring the donors that their pickled cadavers will be totally unrecognizable. I don’t want my own son to stumble upon me, like the Inuit boy Minik, who reportedly happened upon his own father’s skeleton in a display case at the American Museum of Natural History.

Minik and his father, Qisuk, natives of Greenland, had been coaxed back to New York as living specimens by the Arctic explorer Robert Peary in 1897. The Inuits were living in the basement of the museum when Qisuk died of tuberculosis. The boy pleaded for a proper burial, and one was staged for the boy’s benefit, but some time later Minik supposedly bumped into his father’s skeleton in a public display case. Qisuk didn’t actually make it home for proper burial until 1993.