May 25, 2024

Plastic immortality grows in popularity

 Want to get plastinated? This is not an invitation to a boozy night out, but a novel way disposing of your mortal remains. Your body will be be preserved, dissected and displayed in globe-trotting exhibitions. For some it is an appealing option., thousands of people have willed their bodies to the world’s foremost plastinator, Dr Guther von Hagens, and his Body Worlds anatomy exhibit.

Although von Hagens originated the concept in 1977 — body fluids are replaced by liquid plastic which hardens and allows the bodies to be displayed in their natural colour and without formaldehyde — he now has competitors, mostly from China. They also tour the world with flayed mannequins posing as frozen sportsmen with vital organs in public view. A rival exhibit using Chinese corpses is touring Australia at the moment.

Surprisingly, some people want to seek a kind of immortality by joining the show. Since 1983, when von Hagens launched his donations program, 7,652 people have agreed to donate their bodies, of whom 461 have already died. “It’s something that you want to do instead of being ashes or worm food, to be some kind of asset instead of being in the ground,” says 49-year-old homemaker Susan Baxter.

The voyeuristic element in von Hagens’s plastination exhibit has prompted much criticism. The current issue of the American Journal of Bioethics features a discussion of the trend. Bioethicist Lawrence Burns says “[its] educational aims are ambiguous, and some aspects of the exhibit violate human dignity. In particular, the signature cards attached to the whole-body plastinates that bear the title, the signature of Gunther von Hagens, and the date of creation mark the plastinates as artwork and von Hagens as the artist in a gesture that strips the personal dignity from the donors.”

A health care ethicist at Georgetown University in the US, Carol Taylor, dismissed it as mere “commercial amusement”. “My major objection stems from the belief that there’s an innate dignity to humans that extends to our bodies,” she told AP. “Anything that denigrates our bodies by commercialising them, I’m opposed to.” However, another person who wants to become a plastinated stiff disagrees. “My body is just a vessel,” says Stace Owens. “This is just what I have in this life.”

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Gunther von Hagens
respect for bodies