Editorial: Body Worlds is respectful

Body Worlds and the Story of the Heart just opened at the Ontario Science Centre — to much fanfare, and some opposition. This is the second version of this display of real human bodies to appear in Toronto, after a successful visit four years ago.

The exhibit features bodies with layers of their interiors revealed and in active poses. This time around, the emphasis is on the heart and health. The organizers say the exhibit is to show the body at its best — healthy and physically fit. They say they want to show people the science of the human body that usually only doctors, nurses and medical students’ get to see.

Others see this presentation of the body as its own version of art. Or they express wonder at how the human form can be sculpted into a muscular tool, able to perform impressive physical feats.

The exhibit also demonstrates a form of preservation known as plastination, created over 30 years ago by Dr. Gunther von Hagen, and now well-refined. Von Hagen uses the process to vividly preserve everything underneath the skin.

But others aren’t impressed with either Body Worlds’ means or its ends.

In fact, there are some religious groups currently encouraging the public to boycott the exhibition. In the Jewish faith, the belief is that the human body is a sacred temple that should be buried after death. Rabbi Dow Marmur recently wrote a column for the Toronto Star completely rejecting Body Worlds, calling it “hell.” He and others see the body as God’s property — something that should be treated with respect upon death, and certainly not something that should be tampered with in this way or used for commercial gain. (Marmur even mentioned that some devoutly Jewish people have concerns over medical students using cadavers for learning purposes.)

Some people might agree that the human body deserves better treatment than to be displayed for profit, or entertainment, or even education. Perhaps the basic issue is this: How sacred is the human body?

The answer depends on whom you ask. Along this spectrum we find people putting ink on themselves, piercing body parts, and selling their bodies for pornography or sex itself. But we also have wonderful works of art based on the human body. So what is the difference if a person agrees to show off what God gave them in a new way? Art can be found in many forms. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Even ESPN’s sports magazine recently displayed the athletic body in the buff to show how the body, if treated properly and correctly, is an amazing thing to behold.

Body Worlds is merely an extension of that idea. The volunteers who gave their bodies for this purpose may well have agreed that the body is a temple. They’re simply allowing their beneficiaries to display that temple in a new and unique way.