Museum exhibit calls attention to treatment of bodies after death

| Dr. April Lind | February 13, 2013 | 1 Comment
A body sits on display at the Body Worlds exhibit in 2006 at the Science Museum of Minnesota. Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

A body sits on display at the Body Worlds exhibit in 2006 at the Science Museum of Minnesota. Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

We are wonderfully and fearfully made (Psalm 139:14). The human person, made in the image and likeness of God, is the only creature on earth that God willed for its own sake.

As Catholics, we believe that a human person is the real unity of body and soul. Each Sunday we profess our hope of our resurrection and life of the world to come. Blessed John Paul II through his teaching known as the Theology of the Body taught that the body alone is capable of making visible what is invisible.

The purpose for our existence is to know, love and serve God and each other. Since God loved us first, our response to his love is what God uses to draw us closer to him. We become temples of the Holy Spirit because of God’s gift of himself that transforms us. When we reach out to our brothers and sisters in Christ we form relationships that form the basis of communities. It is within these relationships, living in community and communion with each other that we reflect the Trinity.

It is in our nature to seek out beauty and truth, for this ultimately is our search for God. Therefore, it is no wonder that thousands of people have been drawn to the Body Worlds exhibit that has traveled the globe.

This exhibit, currently at the Science Museum of Minnesota, provides insights into the marvel of our very being like never seen by most people. The current exhibit focuses on the Cycle of Life and showcases health, disease and aging.

The human bodies on display have been preserved using a process called polymer impregnation or “plastination” which allows them to be posed, and are displayed in a gallery setting.

Very grateful

I am forever indebted to the person who graciously donated her body so that I could learn the fundamentals of anatomy in my first year of medical school.

There is no doubt in my mind that seeing the body firsthand at a very detailed level laid the foundation for all the knowledge that I gained during medical school and continues to provide me with a framework for understanding disease states that effect my patients.

I am grateful for the heroic gift of those who chose to donate their body to science so physicians like me can learn the knowledge required to care for the health of others. It has been through my studies and the continued practice of medicine that I have come to appreciate the divine within the human.

Science continues to make incredible strides on the frontiers of medical knowledge. Yet, the more that is uncovered, the more is revealed, especially in how dynamically and intricately complex and interdependently we function. Our living, physical bodies visibly reflect the supernatural interconnection we are to be in the world.

Life is sacred

As Catholic Christians we consider life as sacred from the moment of conception in our mothers’ womb until our natural death. Our life does not end after the physical death of our body.

While we experience a temporary separation from our physical bodies we look forward to the end of time when we are reunited with our resurrected transfigured bodies. We know if we live with Christ, although we will die as Christ did, we will rise with him as well.

I would hope that this exhibit stirs visitors to a greater understanding of the human body and provides an opportunity for them to ponder the Creator and his creation in each of us. I hope visitors would recognize that the deceased bodies on display were once animated by human souls that lived and laughed and prayed and are now part of the Church Suffering or hopefully the Church Triumphant.

The catechism teaches the bodies of the dead must be treated with respect and charity in faith and hope of the resurrection (2300).

The Church does not have a concern when people donate their bodies to science, if they are so called. One could ask if a venue such as this is befitting the dignity of the human person. This exhibit is provided by a for-profit entity which may call in to question whether it’s truly an altruistic and educational event.

It is reported the bodies on display were from people who donated their bodies to science, and organizers say their plans are to have the bodies cremated after they are no longer able to be on display. There are still concerns expressed by some groups and, while I am not an investigative reporter, I believe how the organizers and employees treat the bodies would reveal their intentions.

In this technological and scientific age when we can do so much, it is important to consider whether we should do what is possible. Participating in events that bring us closer to God will always bear good fruit.

There is no official Church position regarding this exhibit. It is, however, prudent for us to consider our understanding of the Catholic teaching on the dignity of the human person, and whether an exhibit like this helps or hinders our appreciation of this teaching — especially when making a decision whether or not to attend.

Dr. Lind is a member of the archdiocesan Commission on Biomedical Ethics and a board member of the Twin Cities Guild of the Catholic Medical Association.

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