Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Thoughts On: Body Farms, Autopsies and Anatomy Museums

This one has been swirling around in my head for a while, but it also just so happens to be an appropriate topic for Halloween, don’t you think?

This is one of those cases in which for a long time I had to think to death why I felt the way I feel about a certain thing. So here’s the deal: I am not opposed to art exhibits or museums which display human bodies, I was brought to an anatomy museum as a freshman in high school, and while it was a little disturbing for a 13-14 year old (particularly the severely malformed fetuses and the poster book of a sliced pregnant woman), I do not oppose their existence. Of course I am also fully aware that body farms and autopsies performed for medical training are invaluable to our society and even if I were opposed to the former, the latter is undeniably essential. Here’s my one caveat though: the people who are used have to have consented to this while they were alive. I am firm in this, and I did not go to one of the exhibits in Dublin because I was told that the majority of the bodies used were unclaimed as opposed to voluntarily donated. Why, though, do I feel this way?

I obviously am not religious or superstitious in any way. I do not believe that the “souls” of those people will “know” what is being done to their bodies and upset them. I do not believe that they will become angry ghosts for the way that their bodies are being treated. I do not believe that any of them will be denied access to heaven because they were not buried in a certain way. Why, then, am I so adamant about consent, when they would never know any better anyway?

The answer came to me when I was talking to a friend of mine who is considering visiting the Human Body Exhibition in Milan. She has never been to one of these before nor has she ever seen an autopsy, so while she is very curious she is unsure how she will react. Discussing it, she said that she would probably be very sad, because she will be thinking about how these bodies were real live people once. To which I responded that that would not make me sad in the slightest, so long as I knew that those people had wanted their bodies to be displayed in such a way. And that is when it clicked.

Respecting their last wishes is my way of preserving their humanity. I will always remember that those bodies were people, I cannot disassociate what they are now with what they were. However, knowing that this is what they wanted for themselves and their bodies would make me happy to participate, not sad. I do not fear death the way that many others do and I accept it, however I feel that respecting someone’s wishes is respecting their humanity. I would find it incredibly sad if I knew that the exhibit was filled with unclaimed bodies, that just because those people had outlived their family or perhaps died in the wrong place at the wrong time that somehow made them less human, less worthy of respect, less deserving of choosing the fate of their bodies. I would feel for those people, I would wonder what their lives were like, what they would have wanted, why they died alone and unwanted. On the other hand, to know that the last wish of the person I am looking at was to be looked at by me and the thousands of others that walk through the exhibit makes me feel happy to oblige. I would not think on their past life with sadness but with curiosity and a smile on my face. Finally, I feel that there is an inherent hypocrisy in giving some people the right to do with their body as they choose but deny that right to others.

I may not have really explained myself that clearly, so feel free to ask or bring up another tangent. I am also aware that this is very subjective, so what are your thoughts on the subject?

Have you ever been, or would you ever go to a body exhibit or a human anatomy museum?

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