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Hey Dr. von Hagens--these are human beings you're messing with.

A couple of weeks before Christmas, my wife and I worked in a mercifully quick visit to the Ontario Science Centre in Toronto to view Body Worlds 2, The Anatomical Exhibition of Real Human Bodies. This controversial exhibition which ran until the end of February is the work of German anatomist Dr. Gunther von Hagens, a resident and lecturer at the University of Heidelberg's Institute of Pathology. My English nephew caught a program in which Dr. von Hagens was performing a full autopsy before a live television audience and said the man gave him the wiggling creeps. Like his fictional colleague and countryman, Baron von Frankenstein, Dr. yon Hagens seems to be at least as much a showman as a scientist, the one impulse ultimately sabotaging whatever good there may once have been in the other.

In 1977 Dr. von Hagens developed his "plastination" process, which removes body fluids and fats from donated corpses and replaces them with reactive fluid plastics that halt the corruption of human flesh and tissue. This process makes it possible to permanently display the 200 specimens in this exhibition, including two dozen complete human corpses.

This show offends many people on principle. Rabbi Baruch Frydman-Kohl powerfully argued in a January edition of the Canadian Jewish News that, by so exposing and emphasizing the physical workings of the human body, Body Worlds in fact obscures the sacred. "While the exhibit wants us to feel awe at the complexity of the human being," Frydman-Kohl wrote, "it also distances us from the sense that we are viewing real people. The exhibit wants us to see the body as a natural organism. But even as we gain awe, we lose it. The body becomes dehumanised."

One Catholic woman I know was dragged along to the show in England fully expecting to hate it and, while many aspects of the display rightly troubled her, it ultimately reinforced her faith, making more manifest than ever just "how fearfully and wonderfully made" each child of God is.

A 30-year-old Toronto woman, Stephanie Chapu, announced in January after seeing the exhibition that she was so impressed that she hopes to donate her body to Dr. von Hagens and his work. "Nowhere else can we see what we look like on the inside, and it's done in such a respectful manner to the donors," Chapu told Canadian Press. Respectful manner? I beg to differ.

The first half of the exhibition is made up of various body parts, organs and muscles in illuminated glass cases, many of them dissected or sliced to display their inner workings. Viewing the gossamer-thin tendrils of an extracted spinal cord made me a little queasy, but most of these isolated displays weren't too hard to take. Heck, I remember speakers from the Cancer Society giving lectures at our public school about the dangers of smoking, and pulling out a brine-filled jar with a black spongy lung bobbing about inside. The early bits of Body Worlds didn't strike me as substantially more grisly than that.

The most disturbing impact of Body Worlds comes in the second half, with the display of complete corpses that are set into various dramatic poses like the most intricately designed mannequins you'll ever see. We see one body kicking a soccer ball, a skate boarder crouched down low on his craft as he flies through the air a javelin thrower about to launch his spear on its trajectory. All these actions make use of different sets of muscles and von Hagens has flayed and peeled away the obscuring flesh that allows us to see the inner workings of the body.

For many people the most gruesome exhibit is the similarly treated corpse of a pregnant woman with the front of her abdomen peeled away to reveal her unborn child within. As a staunch pro-lifer, I welcome just about anything that drives home the fact that abortion is about something far more precious than a woman's personal choice. I cherish the thought that, in the middle of this supposedly scientific display, devoutly secular viewers are confronted with this sudden window onto moral reality that they find about as shockingly disagreeable as the photographic displays in a pro-life "Show the Truth" tour.

The exhibits that grossed me out the most were the more, shall we say, "fanciful" ones where Dr. von Hagens seems to be in the grip of some rather childish animating demons. About a half dozen of these later tableaux, constituting the climax of the show as it were, seem to be the product of nothing more "respectful" than that reckless love of gore that makes certain disagreeable young boys want to blow up frogs with firecrackers.

One body is cut up as if it were a chest of drawers, some of which are pulled open. Another body seems to explode outward with a hundred different parts dangling in the air on bits of nylon fishing line. Yet another is diagonally sliced a dozen times and then stretched apart so the viewer can peer in on either side of each slice. One exhibit is called an 'Angel" because flayed skin from the back and shoulders is bunched together into a crude approximation of wings. In instances such as these, a prurient sort of sensationalism clearly trumped any educational benefits. Just what great scientific facts or insights are revealed in exploitative displays like these?

Presumptuously identifying himself as the "creator of Body Works" in all of the show's promotional materials, Dr. von Hagens even signed each one of these posed cadavers as if they were his own pieces of art. I longed to take the doctor aside and ask him, "Where do you get off? This isn't plasticene or metal to be contorted any which way you like. These are human beings you're messing with." And I wondered what it would be like to gaze upon one of these corpses in the company of someone who had loved that person in their lifetime? If the doctor dared stand with us, I feared the flaying would begin again in earnest.

Herman Goodden is a full-time journalist. He writes from London, Ontario.
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Title Annotation:COLUMNIST; Body Worlds 2, The Anatomical Exhibition of Real Human Bodies
Author:Goodden, Herman
Publication:Catholic Insight
Article Type:Column
Geographic Code:1CONT
Date:Mar 1, 2006
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