If you're heading to the Mall of America this weekend, you'll find something new to gawk at, along with the lacy lingerie at Victoria's Secret and the sea horses at Underwater Adventures. It's "Bodies ... the Exhibition," a show that features human cadavers.
The corpses have been "plastinated" -- their fluids drained and their tissue replaced with plastic at a factory in China. They are posed artistically in provocative or whimsical ways, with results that prompt double takes. One man, for example, boots a soccer ball and another bats a tennis serve, while a third points skyward with a grin. (Bodies displayed vary from city to city.)
"Bodies ... the Exhibition" is a spinoff of "Body Worlds," which drew record crowds at the Science Museum of Minnesota in 2006. The cadavers used are processed in the same way, though the two shows are independent.
During the "Body Worlds" run at the Science Museum, we heard lots of high-falutin' talk about the exhibit's lofty educational mission. Such pretense takes more of a back seat at the Mall of America. The mall is unapologetically a commercial enterprise. The new show's merchandise -- from T-shirts and mugs to plastic eyeballs -- will fit right in with the buying and selling percolating all around it.
Like "Body Worlds," "Bodies ... the Exhibition" has been dogged by controversy. Debate has swirled around one question: Did the human beings on display consent to have their bodies used this way?
The answer may well be no, according to a 2008 investigation by the New York attorney general. The "grim reality" is that the company that staged the show "has profited from displaying the remains of individuals who may have been tortured and executed in China," according to Attorney General Andrew Cuomo.
But is consent the end of story? Increasingly, talk of consent is all we're left with in a society that is rapidly shedding its moral vocabulary. We sense that something deeper is at stake when preserved human cadavers compete for our dollars with Bloomingdale's and the Nickelodeon theme park.
Gunther von Hagens -- the German "Body Worlds" impresario and mastermind of the plastination process -- understands that cadaver circuses such as his mine a deep vein in the human psyche. He and his imitators exploit our universal fascination with death -- the same dark impulse that prompts us to gawk at a fatal car crash or spend our Saturday nights at grisly horror films.
Von Hagens, a master provocateur, does this brilliantly. He has drummed up attention for his exhibits with stunts such as placing plastinated bodies on buses and in parks, and has even boasted of dissecting his best friend.
At bottom, he is selling death as entertainment.
Von Hagens' marketing strategy illuminates the most troubling aspect of shows such as "Bodies ... the Exhibition" -- the way they objectify the human beings they display. The exhibits purposely blot out the personhood of their "whole body specimens," who once had names and faces. These individuals were brothers, sisters, mothers or fathers who led lives of joy and suffering, who are worthy of our mourning and empathy, and who -- even in death -- should possess an inviolable dignity.
One of Von Hagens' German critics, Lutheran bishop Ulrich Fischer, sums the problem up this way: "The term 'whole-body exhibits' suggests that these are not people who lived their own unique lives, but rather objects to be processed in a matter-of-fact way and without emotion."
When human beings "become works of art in the hands of artists," he points out, "everything that forms a basis for both human self-awareness as well as human limitations is lost."
At "Bodies ... the Exhibition," we sense the danger of a line being crossed. The issues the show raises intersect with many of the important questions we face about the nature of humanity in our scientific age.
While modern science offers extraordinary benefits, it also poses challenges. In a world where people are tempted to sell their organs, rent their wombs and manipulate their genes, science threatens to reduce human beings to commodities and to make them means to an end.
Von Hagens frames this development in the seductive terms of liberation. The "Body Worlds" catalog challenges visitors to make a "personal break" with what it labels outmoded "taboos" surrounding death.
But Fischer offers a thought-provoking response -- one that, as a German, he finds particularly telling: "When taboos along life's boundaries have been broken, has it not led in the end to man's assuming power over human life in ways that our limited human abilities should preclude?"
Katherine Kersten is a Twin Cities writer and speaker. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.