by Natalie Van Wagoner
“Body Worlds” I typed into my iPod Touch’s Safari search bar and pressed enter, then toggled the results to Google Images. There’s a dead man, skinned, holding up his hide in one hand and staring out of my four-inch screen through glass eyes that won’t shrivel like his real ones did. I scroll a few images down from him and find another person. This one’s been sawn from the top of his or her or its head so many times that they look like a half-peeled banana, if that banana had a tongue and brain and throat in its peel. I flick my finger up the screen. A swarm of reddish-tinged, people-colored pixels blurs past. More bodies. More specimens. All real people. All real dead people. Each had donated her or his body to Body Worlds, and then they’d been drained, peeled, chopped, sliced, and served to the public as a traveling display educating the world on human anatomy. But not me. I closed the open tab and tucked my iPod into the outer zipper pocket of my backpack. I shuffled the Body Worlds field trip paper out of my binder and dropped it in the trash can, unsigned by a parent or guardian and as blank as the unseeing eyes in the people I’d just Googled.
I didn’t go to Body Worlds. And it wasn’t because I thought I’d be grossed out. I just didn’t want to meander past real people’s remains so casually. And so, a week later I pulled my always-too-heavy backpack off and dropped into a desk in my Medical Anatomy and Physiology class that today consisted of me, one other student, and a substitute teacher. I dug out a notebook but left it unopened on my desk, my eyes directed instead toward the various organ systems posters and models that decorated the walls of the class. Part of me wanted to go to Body Worlds. The part of me that is human nature. I felt an urge to see the bodies and how they had been dissected at the same time that I recoiled at the prospect of seeing another human, a dead one, so exposed. As humans we seem drawn to and intrigued by the macabre things we don’t understand. And we don’t understand death. We all have to do it someday but as far as science is concerned we have zilch on what that means for us. No idea. So we become a little intrigued with the prospect of seeing death. And the bodies shown in the exhibits are very dead. Stripped of skin, molded into athletic forms, action shots, loving embraces, their tissues have been chemically plasticized, so they’ll remain for generations. But just because those bodies can be preserved, should they be? The people had donated their bodies to the organization while still alive. Their wishes. They were dead. It’s not as if they needed their bodies. I guess it saves ground space and funeral costs. And Body Worlds was said to be educational. But how educational can it be if all you can do is walk around and see muscles and nervous systems and circulatory systems on display? I know I don’t learn much by just looking at body parts. If it were that easy I could’ve taught myself everything from the simplified drawings on the posters I was staring at.
So, if it isn’t the most educational thing, what else is it that keeps people coming to Body Worlds and Body Worlds turning a profit? Is it a taste of what it means to be mortal? A realization of the fact that no matter how we act or change in life we all look the same underneath our skin? Is it simply a business making a profit from our fascination with gore— offering exhibits of human bodies splayed out in cross section after cross section until they are scarcely recognizable?
I thought back over the gallery of online images I’d investigated. The two bodies embracing – did they ever know each other? Did they know that the physical legacy they’d leave on Earth would be their cells forever holding a stranger? The figure posed in a sprint – was he a runner at one point? Or was his body stuck doing something he’d in fact never enjoyed while he was alive? Were the vestiges of these people completely unrepresentative of them? The concept bothered me. I grew up helping my dad clean up the elk he’d bring home after hunting. And I don’t mind watching the needle penetrate my skin when I get blood drawn. It wasn’t the sight of muscle, tendon, bone, and brain that fazed me. It was that human forms were being displayed so casually, and, for me, without enough reason or benefit to justify it.
* * *
A year later I was in one of the many labs of the BYU Life Sciences Building and couldn’t keep my eyes from wandering to a metal table across the room. Clusters of novice anatomists crowded around it. Their white lab coats blocked my view most of the time, but occasionally one of them would shift and my eyes would meet the subject of their study: an arm. Just an arm. No body attached. Its outer layers had been removed so the muscles could be studied. The tissues were a dull pink-gray, the fingers peeled but with the fingernails left on, a narrow border of skin around each one. Students surrounded it, armed with pencils, probes, and sprayable moisturizers in hand, eagerly determined to learn the flexors from the extensor muscles while supervised by TAs and the ever-present odor of formaldehyde.
At my table in a much less exciting corner of the room, I was studying bones. No gloves for me, no human tissues that needed re-moisturizing every five minutes, just dents and bumps and tunnels with names like sella turcica and foramen magnum. My class wouldn’t move on to muscles till the end of the week. While I knew that the skull I held at one point really contained another human’s brain, it just didn’t seem as close to life as the arm across the room, freshly pulled from the “Upper Limb” Tupperware and looking like it might grab you if you looked away for a second. That hand was somebody’s way of writing, of making a livelihood, of signing their name and giving their word, holding a loved one’s hand, creating artwork. The owner of that arm saw it every day. That’s how they ate their morning cereal. It’s how they learned to plunk out notes on the keys of a piano. Those fingers wiped away tears. They wrote out checks and drove cars down the road. A person lives through their hands. And whomever that arm on the cold metal table belonged to, no longer would they recognize it like the back of the hand they had worn in life. Stripped of skin, muscle and tendon exposed, it seemed wildly abnormal. And yet it felt so personably human.
I spent a lot of time that semester poring over cadavers and cadaver parts. At times the specimens I studied didn’t feel quite like they were human to me – all clusters of molecules and groupings of tissues, no longer in use, no longer needed. A ghost town of cells. Yet the hands always felt human to me. When I looked at the hands, I was instantly reminded that this organization of cells was a person. I could not forget that I was working with an individual.
Someone who lived, breathed, loved, worked, learned, apologized, forgave, thought, changed, ate, slept, got sick, got better, had a family, had friends, and one day, they died. The body they donated so that I could learn anatomy was their vehicle for experiencing life. Though the essence of that individual was no longer contained in its body, the fact that those tissues once housed a human demanded sacrosanct respect and I was grateful that such respect was delivered in that lab.
* * *
Anatomy lab cadavers and the bodies of the Body Worlds exhibits. They’re both dead, dissected, donated according to the wishes of the individuals. But they’re different. The cadavers in the lab made it possible for me to learn anatomy. I differentiated muscles so much more clearly when I learned them on a cadaver. I could now bend over a cadaver’s thoracic cavity and lift its esophagus and aorta with a probe, peering in until I see the lymphatic thoracic duct underneath, narrowly avoiding my hair falling into it. I saw the effects of cancer on the body and I held a brain in my hands. The cadavers were a moveable, tangible, hands-on approach to learning that excited me; they possibly led to my dream of becoming a doctor. The Body Worlds figures were rigid. Pedestaled. Look-but-don’t-touch. Plastic models I’d seen in my anatomy class and at my eye doctor’s office were more educational–those could be taken apart, explored, felt, and put back together again. Body Worlds was the cheap tourist package where people ogled the most extraordinary sites from the top of their double-decker bus but never got to step off the road and take a look inside them.
Before booking a possible reservation on that tour I had done some research. The image of the still-pregnant mother, her stomach flayed open and her fetus exposed, did not educate me on human anatomy. I did not learn about the layers of the abdominal wall but I felt despair for the mother and child who had not gotten to live a full life together. I did not learn about the developmental stages of pregnancy and gestation but I felt raw seeing such a tiny human exposed to the world, the comfort and protection of its mother scalpelled away from it. I did not come away with an understanding of the fetal circulation system but I felt horror at the thought that mother and baby were not models. These were real cells, once actively breathing, moving, living, and growing to facilitate a new life. And here they were. Frozen in their positions and paraded past scores of moderately interested strangers who’d purchased a ticket to see them.
And for what? Maybe just the shock of seeing them in all their gruesome glory. What I saw of Body Worlds was a chance to gawk at something that could be seen as terrifying and tragic. It took little consideration for the lives of the individuals who once resided in those bodies. I loved working with the lab cadavers and thrived on the chance to study off of real specimens. But if Body Worlds came to Provo tomorrow morning I still would choose to stay at home.
It’s been over four years since the day I sat in that nearly abandoned classroom and pretended to do homework for 75 minutes. Since then I have learned in my classes that the DNA in the cadavers and the Body Worlds exhibits alike label each cell to be irrevocably human and the trademark of a person. I still have never been to Body Worlds. But it has turned out to be educational for me. An anatomical exhibit of plasticized bodies might be seen by some as a display of what it is to be human, but to me it is a display of what it is to lose humanity.