Guernica discusses how “plasticization” and other advances create new questions regarding how we may make use of corpses. Cadavers are in-demand like never before, for all sorts of purposes, including macabre exhibitions:
Von Hagens is a tireless promoter of the ethical difference between his exhibits and the others. “All the copycat exhibitions are from China,” he told the New York Times. “And they’re all using unclaimed bodies.”
Both “Bodies…The Exhibition” and “Body Worlds” make use of a new technology von Hagens calls “Plastination,” by which all water is removed from human tissues and replaced with soft silicone polymers. A macabre detail included in the story von Hagens tells of the development of this process hints at the ethical questions that were to come: He first thought of creating perfectly preserved cross-sections of human bodies when he was at a sandwich shop one day watching a butcher run a ham through an electric slicer. It was a flash of inspiration that foreshadowed the dehumanization of the bodies that would follow, for after the Plastination process is complete, von Hagens no longer calls them dead bodies, or corpses, or cadavers, but rather “plastinates.”
The lack of oversight by either government or medical authorities in China has allowed the body processing market to boom in recent years. Even von Hagens, who protests that “his” bodies are of European origin, processes all the human remains for his exhibitions in China. Cases have been cited of bodies discovered on farms, kept on ice, and destined for Plastination factories in the coastal city of Dalian. Doctors and medical students from Chinese universities, which are in every way complicit, admit that they have no idea from where the bodies on which they work have come.
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