This fall, a controversial exhibition in Winnipeg, Man., grabbed my attention. After weeks of plodding mindlessly past graphic advertisements with bold letters announcing “Bodies: The exhibition,” I belatedly clued in to the fact that the bodies in the exhibition were in fact very real, formerly live bodies. The cadavers in the show had been sliced open to reveal muscles and bones and organs, and then coated with a varnish to preserve the body.
Among my friends I soon learned that some were eager to attend the show, out of a desire to deepen awareness and knowledge of the workings of physical bodies or out of simple curiosity. Others had a strong negative reaction to such an exhibit, feeling repulsed or even horrified: To cut open a physical body and put it on display for entertainment purposes seemed to be a violation of the sacredness of the human body. Might it be one more sign of how callous and profane our society has become?
Part of the controversy involves the origin of the bodies on display in Winnipeg and in other locations around the world. The company which put on the show in Winnipeg buys the bodies or “specimens” from the Chinese government, which describes them as unclaimed. It seems that the people who inhabited these bodies were not in a position to give or refuse consent for them to be used in this manner. At the very least, the bodies in the Winnipeg exhibit belonged to poor and vulnerable people, people who were not in a position, at the time of their deaths, for their bodies to receive the respect that most of us think should be extended to the dead.
I was particularly conscious of our treatment of the dead, at the time, because I was preparing for our congregation’s Eternal Life service. As we do each year, we respectfully remember those who have died with a time of prayer and candle-lighting, reading out the names of the deceased, with music and tears helping to ease our heavy task. This year, our small congregation had buried four long-term members; many of us had also experienced the death of a mother or father beyond our congregation. The memory of particular people and the tender care with which we had laid to rest their bodies contrasted sharply with the thought of the cut-open and shiny-sealed bodies on display.
The Scripture text for our service of remembrance included the Apostle Paul’s beautiful reflection that “we have this treasure in clay jars” (II Corinthians 4:7a), a reminder of the preciousness of our “clay jars.” Our bodies hold the treasure of life inside of them, life that we have from God. The breath of God glows within our clay jars. Our bodies are good, and all bodies should be given honour and care when death has come, and the body no longer glows with life.
Whatever our response to an exhibit such as Bodies, we are called to an attitude of respect in the presence of a lifeless body. We may attend a show and see for ourselves the muscles, bones and organs that form our clay jars. Or we may, for many reasons, decline the opportunity. Whatever our choice, we do well to pay sacred respect to bodies, the clay jars that God entrusts with the treasure of life.
Melissa Miller (email@example.com) lives in Winnipeg, where she ponders family relationships as a pastor, counsellor and author.