Academic journal article Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

Plastination for Display: A New Way to Dispose of the Dead

Academic journal article Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

Plastination for Display: A New Way to Dispose of the Dead

Article excerpt

In addition to burial and cremation, we now have a third choice. For me,
it's a kind of secularized burial.
(Gunther von Hagens, interview with author, 2002)

I hope one day I'll be a dead mummy for display.
(14-year-old visitor to the Body Worlds exhibition, London 2002)


The methods by which human bodies may be respectfully disposed of are limited, and each society strictly regulates which methods are acceptable. When a new method is introduced, it can be controversial. An example is the replacement of endocannibalism by burial in the Amazonian society researched by Conklin (2001). In the Western context, examples include the introduction of anatomical dissection from the sixteenth century onwards (Ferrari 1987; Richardson 1989), discussions in the 1870s to introduce cremation to a number of Western countries for the first time in nearly two millennia (Jupp 1997; Prothero 2001), and media coverage in the late twentieth century of the prohibitively expensive process of cryonic freezing (which is in any case not a final disposal, or so hope those who have paid to have their bodies preserved in this way). All proved controversial.

Another recent innovation is plastination. Whereas in a number of societies disposed-of bodies are visible and/or retrievable, for example through secondary burial (Danforth 1982; Hertz 1960) or mummification (Cockburn, Cockburn & Reyman 1998), in most modern Western societies the human form is usually rendered invisible within coffin or casket and then destroyed by burial or cremation. Plastinated bodies, though, are permanent, and presented for public display. From the mid-1990s till the time of writing (April 2004) 14 million people in nine countries have visited Korperwelten/Body Worlds, a travelling exhibition of plastinated bodies, and over 5,000 people have signed forms, available at the exhibition, donating their bodies for plastination.

While many journalistic articles and a few scholarly works have commented on this popular and controversial exhibition, they have not focused on the fact that it constitutes a new way to dispose of the dead. In Britain, there are very few legal prohibitions concerning the mode of dealing with dead bodies (White 2000). The law can be more restrictive elsewhere: in some parts of Europe, for example, human remains--including cremated remains--must be buried. (1) But whatever the legal position, how does the public feel about disposal by plastination? This article asks whether visitors accept as legitimate (1) plastination as a final disposition for human remains, and (2) the public display of plastinated remains. Unlike other scholarly comment on Body Worlds that takes the form, for example, of art criticism or medical ethics, this article is an empirical study in the anthropology and sociology of death.

A number of early anthropologists (e.g. Frazer 1933-6) highlighted the fear of the dead, whether of body or ghost. Do Body Worlds visitors fear, loathe, find disgusting, or otherwise react with visceral negativity to the remains on display? Bloch and Parry (1982) analyse death more positively as a process of transformation, in which symbols of rebirth and fertility counter the physical reality of death. What kind of symbolic transformation of the corpse is achieved by plastination and subsequent display? Douglas Davies (1997), drawing on Bloch's (1992) theory of sacrifice and immortality, demonstrates that in funerary rites life conquers death. Does the donor's sacrifice of their corpse for public display perhaps create immortality for them, and/or enlightenment for exhibition visitors?

I suggest that Hertz's (1960) notion of wet and dry burial is particularly informative. In the double funerals that Hertz analysed, the wet burial ritually disposes of the fresh corpse; there is then an intermediary period in which the decomposition of the body is mirrored by the passage of the soul and the ritual actions of mourners; this is ended by the dry funeral, in which the dry remains are recovered, and ritually re-disposed of in a permanent location. …

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