Should There Be a Code of Ethics for the Dead?

A little over a week ago, I wrote a really long post about Bodies: The Exhibition. Since then, I have received many, many comments about the post usually in the form of an email. Most of them were positive, a few not so much.

Here’s the deal. About three years ago, there was something in the news about an exhibit called “Body Worlds”. I barely paid attention to it at the time because I thought religious zealots began the whole stink. Recently, I have found out what it was really about. Apparently the fella who began BodyWorlds was under attack for possibly attaining the bodies illegally. There was a massive ethical debate over whether this was right. After all, he was using these bodies for profit and they weren’t always displayed kindly. This wasn’t done in the name of science; it’s not backed by any major medical organization. Now, I might be wrong about some of these details, so please, by all means, correct me should I report something incorrectly.

The German fella, Gunther Von Hagens, started BodyWorlds. Bodies: The Exhibition was started by an Asian man who was once Günter’s and has since moved on with a competing exhibit. That exhibit is the one I wrote about.

Last Thursday, a man who works for Bodies contacted me.

Hey, Michele. You left your email address and phone number with us after you went through the exhibition. I really liked your email address, Can I volunteer for you? Perhaps we can work out some type of bartering? Great work.

I listened to it again trying to figure out what he was saying. And quite honestly, I’m still unsure. Instead of calling him back right away, I waited. I wanted to talk to Toby about it. If this guy had read my site, I might have some explaining to do because the further removed I was from the exhibit, the more and more the potentially unethical way in which these bodies were attained bugged me. I needed to find out more about this whole ethical debate because the more and more I thought about it, the more and more it became glaringly clear that there was no way ALL those specimens were donated entirely in the name of science. No way at all. Seriously.

Back in the day, scientists, medical doctors, people who wanted to save lives, pursued drastic measures in order to study the human body. Before science enabled people like myself to donate their body, people actually dug up the dead in order to study them. Sometimes, they would do so right at the gravesites.

When I heard about this, I remember thinking, “Well, it’s gross and might seem wrong, but if you’re none the wiser and they save future lives with their knowledge, is that wrong?” No harm done, right? I deemed this act as a good one.

Donating your body to science in order to better the lives of the living I have deemed as a right and kind act.

The Mutter museum in Philadelphia, set up for medical students at University of Penn, is an educational experience. Many of the specimens you’ll see there are made from wax. I have been a fond patron of the Mutter museum and have learned from the experience time and time again. Again, I have deemed the Mutter Museum as good.

In Garden State, Mark (Peter Sarsgaard) steals jewelry from the dead and sells it for profit. I deemed this act as a bad one. But then, at the end, when he returns a sentimental piece of jewelry to Largeman because it makes more sense that it’s with him than in the ground with his dead mother. Well, that changed things a bit. I deemed this act as a forgivable one. (I know that last part was seized from fiction. But it still triggered the taboo button.)

Unethically attaining bodies for profit, even if we the public learns from said display, I feel is very, very wrong. I have tried to convince myself otherwise, because the exhibit, and my own mortality, without a doubt, inspired me. But no matter how I felt after the exhibit, I always come back to that same thought: had I discovered that one of those bodies was actually a member of my family, it would have brought me to tears. I’d want nothing more than to take them down from the display, cover them with a blanket and finally lay them to rest.

I’m an organ donor and plan on donating my body to science when I die. I figure that in order understand the living we have to also understand the dead. I realize that donating a body to science can better the greater common good. But unethically taking bodies and using them to profit seems like the work of a madman, or (for the religious) the Devil himself.

It’s been a week since I got the phone call and I’m still torn. After receiving an email from him over the weekend, I wrote him back to find out a little more about his needs and what he might expect from me. He was vague with his answer but wishes to meet with me to discuss it further. A part of me wants to go “undercover” and find out whatever I can about the people behind the exhibit because knowing the truth might help me to come to terms with my struggle. Knowing the truth might also make me feel worse.


  1. michele, if you decide to meet them, do it in a crowded place….. : )

    as for Graden State. mark was not saving the item from eternal slumber, he was fixing a wrong in that it was stolen and sold to a dealer, then tracked down at that dealer/collector’s place and returned as a favor to the thief. at least that’s how i read it.


  2. greg, the garden state bit, you done confused me brother. I have no idea what you’re saying. explain?


  3. maybe i’m confused by what you said…..”he returns a sentimental piece of jewelry to Largeman because it makes more sense that it’s with him than in the ground with his dead mother.”……i remember him saying this (or close) but to me, the item was already stolen and he felt bad that largeman deserved it more than a collector. for me, the movie shows mark and his buddy to be the theives, not the dealer/collector. so what i saw in the movie was an act of the guy mark not saving it from being buried but saving it from being sold to a /deaker/collector. that’s why it took some doing to get it to largeman, it was that they dug up the grave….they steal before the coffin is inturned.


  4. oops……… i meant….”it was NOT that they dug up the grave….they STOLE it before the coffin is inturned.”

    am i completely off base?


  5. No, I actually think we’re in agreement. I just wrote it very poorly. :]


  6. a part of me wants you to go undercover too – in a very well lit area with several strategically placed pals throughout – I’m intrigued as to what he could want.

    other than that, you raise good points and made my brain think about something it never would have before – thank you!


  7. Er, since he contacted you because he liked your website, your cover may now be blown!

    You can argue, I suppose, that the benefits arise from displaying the bodies to the public, rather than from the traditional assumption that other scientists will get to play about with them. For example, one of the bodies displayed showed the damage to the lungs by a lifetime of smoking, another the damage done to the heart by a poor diet. Arguably, this is in the public interest, even if scientists already know that poor diets and smoking can do some serious damage…

    Plenty of people genuinely have committed to leaving their bodies to von Hagens – I remember reading interviews with some of them – and while that may seem a little creepy, I suppose that’s their right.

    (Garden State: great film, by the way)


  8. I’ve heard some strange things about the procurement of those bodies, but who knows what the truth is. I’d be interested to know as well. I say be careful though.


  9. Have you read “Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers”? How do you know that the cadavers in these exhibits were procured unethically? Were they stolen? or are you saying that a person who donates their body to science should expect something different from the way these bodies are being treated?

    Isn’t the ethical problem really that so many of these people died without anyone to care for their remains? Ultimately (as Roach describes in Stiff), you really have no control over what happens to your body when you leave it to “science.” It can quite easily become a commodity to be sold (for example to a plastic surgery colloquium that charges surgeons tons of $ to come learn new rhinoplasty techniques), and then re-sold to someone teaching a different technique on another part of the head.

    Call me old fashioned, but after harvesting anything that may be of use, I kinda want to be buried in a coffin in a grave. This is the exact opposite wish of my parents—they want to sell my corpse for cigarette money (ba-dump-bump!). Really, my dad fears being buried and wants cremation; my mother has had so much cut out of her over the years in her battle with cancer, it’s really questionable how much use she’ll be to science! (and chemotherapy has probably rendered her organs useless).


  10. No, no, Charlie. If these were donated, I’d be perfectly OK with it. Really. The problem is that they may have been purchased by the people behind the exhibits and illegally. Basically, it’s my understanding that, the bodies may have been bought without the family members knowing. So, man walks into an undertaker’s office and buys the body for a large price and then turns and makes money on showing it to the public.


  11. When the Universe Within exhibit was in San Francisco earlier this year, there was a call for a boycott from Chinese people saying that displaying the dead the way the exhibit was doing was very insulting in Chinese culture and that many of the cadavers were Chinese. Also, some of the rumors are that one of the reasons they can’t verify the source of the bodies is because it is belived that they may have possibly been Chinese prisoners. You can read about the bodies actually leaking here There is definitely some questions about these type of exhibits. San Francisco was even considering banning such exhibitions in the future because of all the controversies raised by this show.


Leave a Reply Cancel reply