Bring Out Your Dead:
Touring Corpses and the Yuck Factor

General Bioethics — By on June 6, 2005 at 2:13 am

In his Histories, Herodotus, the first Western historian, relates a curious anecdote about the Persian king Darius. Gathering a group of Greeks who were presently at his court, the king asked them what they would take to eat the dead bodies of their fathers. They replied that no sum of money would entice them to commit such a despicable act. As Herodotus relates the story:

He then sent for certain Indians, of the race called Callatians, men who eat their fathers, and asked them, while the Greeks stood by, and knew by the help of an interpreter all that was said, — ‘



  • http://thebronxblogger.blogspot.com Matthew Goggins

    I haven’t seen the “Body Worlds” exhibitions, but I’ve seen a catalog and other pictures.
    Assuming that the bodies were all obtained in an ethical way, then the exhibit should be applauded and supported.
    There is nothing evil about taking the human body and displaying it in a respectful manner. The more we understand about ourselves and our world, the better.
    The PPK Blog post concludes that “Rome fell for less.” I conclude that the PPK blogger needs some history lessons.
    The visceral reaction, “Yuck, double yuck, stuff like this is legal?” is very interesting.
    In looking at my own “yuck” reaction, I think it’s a reluctance to think of my own body as a mortal, precarious bag of living tissues that is doomed to slowly (or quickly) fall apart, stop working, and turn to mulch. My reaction of being initially a little grossed-out comes from an ancient taboo to avoid a certain level of intimacy with the bodies of strangers, combined with an even stronger taboo to avoid things related with death.
    While we should be reluctant and cautious to disregard our taboos, or to be frivolous about them, we should not be afraid or timid about examining them. And when something worthwhile, like the “Body Worlds” shows, clashes with our taboos, we need to step back and think about what’s more important.
    In this particular case, the “Body Worlds” shows are much more important. The shows’ freedom of expession, the public’s freedom to see the shows, and the dissemination of beauty and knowledge weigh overwhelmingly more than the offended sensibilities of people who insist the taboos must be respected here.
    The shows do not “deform the character” or produce “blind spots … to objective evil”. They do just the opposite. They teach people about people (and about some animals too), and that is noble.

  • http://inkan.blogspot.com pgepps

    I’m with Bainbridge, albeit I would fail to act on my desire to coerce the solution.
    I cannot adequately rationalize it, but I do not wish to be near it, not by a thousand miles . . .
    The body *is* someone. It is never just a thing, it can never be the hack-shack of universal parts they’re turning it into–and by “they” I mean “we,” and I don’t know how to get out.
    This turns me round the bend, really . . .
    Take care,
    PGE

  • Nick

    I’d be curious to hear the reaction of a medical doctor to this exhibit and the ways it differs from gross anatomy. Perhaps an art historian could comment on the similarities and/or dissimilarities to Renaissance drawings of human dissections.
    Personally, I think sqeamishness is only tangentially related to morality, and the yuck factor is a silly way to make moral decisions.

  • http://www.blindmindseye.com MikeT

    I agree with Nick. The so-called “wisdom of repugnance” only makes sense in a specific set of cases. For example, to a typical little girl it maybe absolutely disgusting to roll around in mud, but a group of little boys will wrestle each other in it and not think twice about it. On the other end of it, you have many people who find dealing with cadavers revolting, and yet you have to have forensics who can suspend their sense of repugnance to analyze a body for cause of death. The reason alone doesn’t make it justified, it’s the very fact that someone can suspend it for some reason brings the entire thing into question.
    The “wisdom of repugnance” only makes sense if you believe that humanity should not aspire to a strong rationality. There is no contradiction between that and emotion, but the “wisdom of repugnance” is an appeal to emotion and almost never to reason. What one person may find repugnant, another may not and there may be absolutely no moral reason or danger there whatsoever.
    It is legitimate to apply the “wisdom of repugnance” to most pornography because it is naturally abhorrent for a reason. Yet to just wholesale get rid of a display of cadavers makes no sense from a rational perspective and reason is one of the only things we can trust to guide the law. If we govern based on pure emotion, which is what most socialists and social conservatives alike want, we will have a legal system that’ll either change everytime a new party gets elected or it’ll combine the worst of all platforms.

  • DLE

    I’m not repulsed. Actually, I think it is an example of how we are fearfully and wonderfully made.
    Every culture does have a unique view of the dead. Even Western civilization has varied in this. Now that we live in an age where we are divorced from death, shunting our elderly into nursing homes, and keeping our children away from the natural dying process, death becomes more horrifying to us. Perhaps that is what people are feeling when they see this exhibition and start talking about a “yuck factor.”
    And as for us having control over our bodies, is there any more binding agreement than what the deceased wishes to do with his/her body after death? Cremation or burial, being used for nothing or being donated to science, we tend to respect the wishes of the deceased in these regards–even in the West.
    I guess the real question comes down to the legitimacy of displaying the dead for profit, as the museum shows do. I have a harder time with that. But if folks wish to donate their bodies, it’s their choice, isn’t it? As Christians we believe that we are much more than our bodies. Yet for all the talk of this flesh being “a shell,” it seems a bit of an overreaction to suddenly ascribe more to it if used in a display such as this.

  • Franklin Mason

    So, then, on this ‘Yuck’ analysis:
    It’s not that someone or other has such an intimate view of another’s deceased body. Of course medical doctors are, with very good reason, required to gain such intimate knowledge of the dead. It’s that a dead body, quite literally in mid-disection, is put on public view, and that this public show panders to some prurient interest.
    Perhaps for some, but it did not seem so for me. I saw the show in Chicago. What interest I could muster (the wife and kids wanted to see it, not me) was a purely intellectual curiosity. But I was, and am, convinced that I could learn more about anatomy in an hour with a copy of Grey’s in my study.
    I do not merely believe but feel down in my bones that a dead body is just as much a thing as a rock or a cloud. Intrinsically, it just doesn’t matter. Of course it might have great value to someone still alive, and thus we have certain obligations as regards treatment of the dead that derive from the obligations to those still alive. But the dead body itself? Intrinsically, it simply doesn’t matter.
    A small point: both deontological and consequentialist ethics make much of character and of virtue. And one could certainly argue on both that one ought not do a thing that might degrade virtue. (For a deontologist, virtue is important in that the virtuous person will do that which is her duty. For a consequentialist, virtue is important in that the virtuous person will do that which is likely to maximize happiness.)

  • http://10-8.blogspot.com Phil Aldridge

    One of the things I appreciate about art is that many times, the artist’s intent is divorced from the impact of the art on the viewer. For example, I’ve been really touched by the work of John Fowles and Frank Herbert, even though both of them and many of their books were written out of their disdain of religion. Regardless of what they intended their work to do, for me, I was enlightened and enriched by them, even as a Christian.
    I’m sure Joe and the guy he quotes are correct about the artist having a masturbatory fascination with revulsion and taboo-breaking. I saw it all the time in the art community and it is as pathetic as it seems. However, just because the artist may be juvenile in his preoccupation with the morbid, the viewer may get something else out of it that is more substantial.
    A plasticised body may touch the Christian by showing the fine craftsmanship of the body. It may touch the atheist as a testament to the supremacy of the natural process. It may touch a med student or forensic pathologist because it is an artful treatment of their life’s work. It may touch any number of people in any number of different ways. So, that would be my defence of the exhibit.
    Then again, I’m the guy who paid money to visit the Museum of Deformity (or whatever it is) in Philedelphia.

  • http://www.sufficientscruples.com Kevin T. Keith

    I’d be curious to hear the reaction of a medical doctor to this exhibit and the ways it differs from gross anatomy. Perhaps an art historian could comment on the similarities and/or dissimilarities to Renaissance drawings of human dissections.
    These are excellent questions. They point both to the reasons why we treat bodies in a certain way, and also to Joe’s discussion of the mindset required to view these preparations.
    We believe some poeple are justified in looking at bodies in a detailed way. More than this, we believe it does not harm them psychologically to do so. (Doctors, famously, learn to “compartmentalize” their emotional reactions to pain or gruesome sights, but even without compartmentalizing most medical students very quickly overcome their squeamishness about dead bodies in the dissection lab. It simply isn’t a problem – and the emotional distancing it sometimes produces, while an interesting phenomenon in itself, does not usually cause us to regard doctors as monstrous or inhuman.) You can make an argument that the viewing without “medical necessity” causes some kind of harm that doctors, anatomists, artists, coroners, detectives, sculptors, anthropologists, undertakers, . . . or, in fact, virtually every one who has ever had deliberate, detailed interaction with human corpses . . . are immune to – but there seems to be no evidence that that’s true.
    So, we know from experience that the dissection of human bodies, and observation of the dissected bodies, doesn’t cause harm, and we have already decided as a society that it is an appropriate act in some circumstances (I presume no one today would disagree).
    The objection to such an act by “lay” persons can then only be an objection that they are not allowed to look in this way – that they are not “qualified” or justified in doing so, while “authorized professionals” are. I can’t see on what grounds such an argument can be made. Obviously, the act of looking has different consequences and a different kind of significance for a doctor or a member of the public – no lives hang in the balance for the latter – but that by itself doesn’t make the looking any less justified. You would have to say that some forms of knowledge or experience are just not important enough to merit exactly the same kinds of procedures that justify the acquiring similar knowledge and experiences by other people (and in a case where no scarcity of resources exists – the subjects all agreed to these procedures – and nobody is exposed or harmed who didn’t go far out of their way to get something to complain about).
    I suppose you can make an argument of that kind, but no one yet has done so. The objections that have been made are grounded in subjective reactions to the material, not objective claims about the value of seeing it. I, for one, am tired of Christians constantly telling us what we can’t know, can’t read, can’t experience, and can’t even look at just because they don’t like the things we want to know, experience, or look at, and I’m not inclined to take it seriously.
    One more point, regarding Joe’s reaction to the teaching materials:
    If exact replicas could be carved from plastic without the use of real cadavers, would I have been as compelled to plunk down the $25 for admission? Sadly, I have to confess that the answer is

  • http://www.dmobley.com David M.

    I had to chuckle when I read “grossed nearly $1 billion worldwide”. I wondered if the $ really belonged…

  • http://sddc.blogspot.com corrie

    I agree with DLE. I respect “yuck” as a personal reaction, but that is no basis for banning the exhibit. It’s far less troubling than a carnival freak show or an episode of Jerry Springer.

  • Terry

    What do you call defiling a grave for amusement? At least the dissectionists of the Enlightenment could claim to be playing with dead bodies in the pursuit of science. The ‘Body Works’ exhibit has as much to do with the search for medical knowledge as a circus freak show. Pieces of dead people artfully arranged and put on display for the entertainment of a curious public. Yech indeed.
    The danger in an exhibit like ‘Body Works’ is that it encourages us to think of ourselves as objects. In The Pilgrim’s Regress C.S. Lewis had a giant (representing the scientific viewpoint) lock a character in a dark dungeon. The giant would periodically shine a searchlight into the cell and the searchlight had the property of showing what lay beneath the character’s skin — his internal organs and so on. At one point the character looks at a fellow prisoner and sees that:

    A woman was seated near him, but he did not see that it was a woman, because, through the face, he saw the skull and through that the brains and the passages of the nose, and the larynx, and the saliva moving in the glands and the blood in the veins: and lower down the lungs panting like sponges, and the liver, and the intestines like a coil of snakes.

    Take a cross from an altar. Slice it and dice it into a thousand pieces and put them on display. What was once an object of veneration has become bits of metal and wood. What did you lose when you gained the knowledge of what it looked like on the inside?

  • http://http//mixingmemory.blogspot.com Chris

    Honestly, my reaction to the use of the “yuck” factor to judge whether we should ban a particular piece of art (or series of pieces) is, “Yuck. Double yuck. Triple, quadruple, n-tuple yuck.” It’s downright disturbing, in fact. How yucky does a work of art have to be before we ban it? I mean, my initial reaction to Goya’s “Saturn Eating His Children” was one of revulsion, but would anyone even contemplate banning that painting? How many yucks are required before we consider banning something?
    Often new artwork is disturbing, but sometimes that’s the point, and even if it’s not, the fact that we are disturbed can tell us a lot about ourselves and the way we view the world. If we are disturbed by something and “feel” that it should be banned, but cannot offer rational reasons why it should be banned, that tells us a whole hell of a lot about ourselves.
    I think part of the point of the exhibit is to display the beauty and complexity of the human body. I certainly can’t think of any reason why it might be considered disprespectful to the body. But nobody has tried to offer any such reason. They’ve just offered “yucks.”

  • http://www.sufficientscruples.com Kevin T. Keith

    C.S. Lewis (the Christian that Christians don’t realize makes them look bad) writes:
    A woman was seated near him, but he did not see that it was a woman, because, through the face, he saw the skull and through that the brains and the passages of the nose, and the larynx, and the saliva moving in the glands and the blood in the veins: and lower down the lungs panting like sponges, and the liver, and the intestines like a coil of snakes.
    That’s as much as anyone needs to know about this whole business. Lewis, like so many Christians, is really repulsed by the body. He sees it as “sponges” and “snakes”; he can barely control his disgust at all those . . . things . . . “lungs . . . and the liver, and the intestines . . .”. How does he convey the horror of this scientific slavery? One character can see another character’s body – and somehow the mere knowledge that that character has a body . . . with all those things in it . . . erases her existence as an actual person (“he did not see that it was a woman”). (Interestingly, the problem does not seem to be that they’re locked in a dungeon, or that they’re being probed against their will – only that that probing reveals the truth about their . . . bodies.)
    Lewis is telling us nothing more than his own phobias. I don’t share his phobias. I invite you not to, as well – it will make you a healthier person.

  • http://philosophicalmidwifery.blogspot.com/ Franklin Mason

    Terry,
    You say: ‘What do you call defiling a grave for amusement?’
    It seems to me that there’s likely a relevant moral difference in the two cases. If you defile a grave, you will likely thereby upset relatives, friends etc. and you will likely financially harm the cemetary where the grave was found. But one ought not do such things as this, and so one has an obligation as regards the grave. It is not an obligation to the grave or to the body that lies there. They are mere things. Rather it is an obligation to certain persons still alive, and from this obligation one derives an obligation that regards the grave and body.
    My assumption is that, in the case of the bodies on display in Body Worlds, there are no obligations to persons still alive what would require that we not view those bodies. There are no upset relatives; there are no financial harms.

  • Nick

    What do you call defiling a grave for amusement?
    What grave was defiled?
    At least the dissectionists of the Enlightenment could claim to be playing with dead bodies in the pursuit of science.
    And now you have very rapidly gone beyond the yuck factor into a rational discussion of why some “yucky” things are morally acceptable and others aren’t. The “yuck” factor alone isn’t very useful, is it?

  • http://www.blestwithsons.com blestwithsons

    Kevin T Keith, have you actually read The Pilgrim’s Regress? You presume to know a lot about C.S. Lewis’ supposed phobias and dislikes based off a one sentence quote. Do you have more evidence from his writings to back up your claims?
    Reminds me of an email I once got claiming Lewis was evil. The emailer used a quote from That Hideous Strength and said “Ooh look what Lewis said! He’s so evil!” without ever qualifying that the quote was actually dialogue from one of the villains in a work of fiction.

  • Terry

    Kevin wrote:
    “That’s as much as anyone needs to know about this whole business. Lewis, like so many Christians, is really repulsed by the body.”
    Congratulations on your psychic ability. From reading one passage written by man forty years dead you’ve managed to peer not only into his soul, but into the depths of the souls of ‘so many Christians’.
    If you weren’t blinded by prejudice you might have noticed that as a result of the giant’s searchlight, rather than seeing the woman as a unity, as a person, the character saw her only as a collection of autonomous, machine-like objects. This was, I think, the point of Lewis’s allegory.

  • Larry Lord

    ” Pieces of dead people artfully arranged and put on display for the entertainment of a curious public.”
    What is it about this exhibit that entertains people? Do you suppose that some people are curious about what the insides of our bodies look like?
    Is that curiosity itself “yucky” to any of you?
    Perhaps what you really want is to ban the brains of curious people. I think the Taliban also approves of this approach.

  • Larry Lord

    “Take a cross from an altar. Slice it and dice it into a thousand pieces and put them on display. What was once an object of veneration has become bits of metal and wood. What did you lose when you gained the knowledge of what it looked like on the inside?”
    Nothing.
    So how does this weird argument square with the fact that chopped up little bits of saints’ bones and cross pieces are found in thousands of altars around the world?

  • http://www.celticguitar.com steve baughman

    I have heard that some Buddhist monks daily look at photos of corpses to remind themselves that this is where we shall all end up. Ain’t that the truth?
    steve baughman

  • http://www.gryphmon.com Patrick

    “The body *is* someone. It is never just a thing, it can never be the hack-shack of universal parts they’re turning it into–and by “they” I mean “we,” and I don’t know how to get out.”

    No, the body isn’t someone. I have seen quite a few dead bodies, as I’ve been to a lot of funerals. It always strikes me how much there is no real sense of anyone “being there” anymore. It’s as if what is left after death is a just a very poor representation of something that used to exist. Even a photograph or video is a much better representation of the departed than human remains are because they are at least a record of life. It’s a clich

  • William Tanksley

    A small point: both deontological and consequentialist ethics make much of character and of virtue. And one could certainly argue on both that one ought not do a thing that might degrade virtue. (For a deontologist, virtue is important in that the virtuous person will do that which is her duty. For a consequentialist, virtue is important in that the virtuous person will do that which is likely to maximize happiness.)
    Critical point here: Although your parenthesis is technically correct, it’s true for the wrong reasons. For both the deontologist and consequentialist, the definition of “virtue” is conformance to the ethical conditions. Therefore, of course a virtuous person will conform; if they ever didn’t conform, they by definition wouldn’t be virtuous.
    For virtue ethics, virtue is the goal, and is not defined strictly in terms of the primary goal.
    -Billy

  • http://www.evangelicaloutpost.com Joe Carter

    In order to limit spam, comment threads are routinely closed one week after the date of the post.
    For more discussion on this topic visit the EO forum at http://www.evangelicaloutpost.com/forum.