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Mengele's legacy.

While I've no idea what Josef Mengele might have made of the exhibition of flayed bodies now on display in London, it has caused enough upset to result in public outrage and costly vandalism.

Since it opened in March, the exhibition titled Body Worlds has come under critical and physical attack for displaying 25 cadavers in various poses.

One of the exhibits, titled simply The Organ Donor, is the plasticised body of a man holding his own liver. The day the show opened, the exhibit was reportedly attacked with a hammer, causing [pounds sterling]30,000 damage. A second protester threw paint over another exhibit and covered a third cadaver with a blanket.

The attacks have been verbal as well. Nobel-prizewinning novelist Gunther Grass has likened the show's creator to a modern-day Mengele, Hitler's Frankensteinian henchman. Anatomists have accused him of sensationalist showmanship. Religious groups have denounced him for gross disrespect.

Still others have compared him to Ed Gein (on whom The Silence of the Lambs is based), the serial killer who turned the corpses of his victims into household accoutrements, skulls into soup bowls, skins into lampshades. The man they are condemning is Dr Gunther von Hagens, a German professor of anatomy who has used a technique called "plastination" to preserve 25 corpses for public display. The corpses include an eight-months-pregnant woman with her womb open, revealing her perfectly formed baby; a female runner with her musculature pulled away from her skeleton to suggest the body in motion; a man with his brain exposed playing chess; and two riders on horseback, all three bodies completely flayed with muscle fully exposed.

For his show, the professor required human corpses and copious amounts of liquid polymer, an odorless substance which, according to von Hagens, will preserve the corpses indefinitely, perhaps for hundreds of years. Since the exhibition first opened in Japan in 1995, it has generated much controversy and attracted more than 8 million viewers.

As for myself, had I not been assigned by a British newspaper to review it, I would never have seen it. Even so, my response surprised me as much as the show itself. Moral considerations notwithstanding, this is one riveting spectacle--one that reveals to the general public what has been known only to surgeons, coroners, forensic scientists and a handful of novelists.

Here, in glass cases and on postmodernist platforms, the form and contents of the human body are plain to see. This is Gray's Anatomy in 3-D: skeletons, brains, joints, musculature, arterial networks, nervous systems, hearts, livers, lungs, pancreases, kidneys, spleens, stomachs, bladders and intestines, fully-formed and in horizontal slices.

There are also vials containing human embryos in the early stages of prenatal development--from four weeks to three months. There are in- utero infants from midterm pregnancy to nine months, some perfectly formed, others blighted with such congenital deformities as hydrocephaly, spina bifida, cleft palate and conjoined twinning (Siamese twins). Disturbing?

Absolutely, but highly informative as well, in a clinical sort of way. What all this says about homo sapiens circa 2002 is anyone's guess, but then the history of anatomy has always had a dark side. Ever since ancient Greek physicians carried out vivisections of human subjects, since surgeons tussled for corpses cut fresh from the gallows, since hooded figures haunted churchyards with spades, the anatomist has operated at the margins of the culturally acceptable.

Yet the art of the anatomist is integral to Western culture. Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo are simply the most famous of the many Renaissance artists who pored over the dissecting table. Rembrandt also painted pictures of anatomy lessons--tissues, ligaments and tendons delicately exposed. In his day, cadavers revealed divine marvels. They served as reminders of human frailty, they directed their audiences' attention towards God. Science, religion and aesthetics were inextricably entwined.

Four centuries later, the anatomist seems primarily concerned with the material structure of the human body as seen and explored by science, with little to no regard for its spiritual reality. Which may be why this exhibition has gotten under so many skins and upset so many souls. Perhaps we now understand we've trusted our souls too far to the geneticists.

As I moved from display case to display case, body part to body part, corpse to corpse, I had three distinct thoughts. The first was 'What a thing is man!' How amazing is his anatomical construction. So detailed, so streamlined, so efficient, so complex, so perfect.

The second was 'dust to dust, ashes to ashes'. Here in this laboratory-style show were the bodies of 25 nameless men and women. In cases all around me were the joints, limbs, organs and slices of countless others. In vials were babies who may never have known of their own existence. All real people once alive. All with minds, ideas and longings, all animated by what is called the human 'soul', created and loved by God. Which leads me to my third and final thought. While von Hagens insists all his cadavers donated their bodies to science while still alive, it seems to me highly unlikely, even impossible, that such an act is consistent with a holy death. For that reason, I felt--and continue to feel--the need to pray for the repose of each of those poor souls now on public display in Brick Lane.

I hope some readers might also be inclined to pray for them. As nameless and as unknown as they are, they are known to God. And if the living don't pray for their commitment into the arms of the Lord, who will?

Paula Adamick is our London, England columnist. Her column appears five times a year.
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Title Annotation:Josef Mengele, worild war II figure
Author:Adamick, Paula
Publication:Catholic Insight
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:4EUUE
Date:May 1, 2002
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