By Hilary White

NEW YORK, May 30, 2008 ( – The New York State Attorney General’s office has ordered the owners of a “plastinated” body display in New York to post signs at the entrance of the exhibit telling visitors that it is not possible to confirm whether the bodies displayed were those of executed Chinese prisoners who may have been victims of torture.

The order came last Thursday after the company, Premier Exhibitions, admitted it had no way of knowing the exact origin of the bodies, all of which were obtained in China, a country that executes more of its citizens than any other nation. Under the terms of the settlement, the New York Times reports, the exhibitors cannot obtain new bodies without documentation proving the individual’s identity, cause of death and consent for the body to be displayed. The company has put aside $50,000 for refunds to visitors who have seen the display.

“Respect for the dead and respect for the public requires that Premier do more than simply assure us that there is no reason for concern,” Attorney General Andrew M. Cuomo said. “This settlement is a start.”

Throughout the controversy, Premier insisted that the bodies were “unclaimed” deceased, obtained lawfully through Dalian Medical University Plastination Company in northern China. Human rights experts in Chinese prison systems, however, were adamant that the status of being “unclaimed” meant that at least some of them had been prisoners.

Since 1995, exhibitions of preserved and partly dissected human bodies have been shown in public venues around the US, Canada and Europe. The shows have been wildly successful, earning millions for the owners, but serious questions are increasingly being raised as to the origins of the bodies and more broadly, the ethics of the idea as a whole.

Two sets of displays of plastinated bodies, Body Worlds, started by the inventor of the process, Dr. Gunter von Hagens, and Bodies…The Exhibit by Premier, a rival company, are travelling the world and are currently being shown in Manchester and Cincinnati respectively, as well as in New York.

Dr. von Hagens has opened his procedures up to scrutiny and has offered to show public health authorities in California documentation showing the donors of his bodies gave their consent. Von Hagens told ABC news that he had stopped using bodies from China because they may have been those of executed prisoners. He said that when he had discovered signs on some of the bodies that indicated execution, he had them cremated. “There is now no way for me any more to work with specimens in China,” he said.

Even so, California legislators, as well as some US Congressmen are putting forward legislation requiring such exhibits to produce full documentation proving consent for all plastinated human remains brought into and shown in the United States. In addition, Congressman Todd Akin of Missouri has introduced federal legislation that would prohibit the import of any plastinated human remains into the US.

The move follows allegations by human rights activist Harry Wu, a Catholic who spent 19 years in Chinese labour camps for opposing the communist regime. Wu said that the bodies used by the Premier display came from executed and tortured Chinese prisoners. Wu established the Laogai Research Foundation in 1992 to gather information and spread public awareness on the Chinese Laogai, or prison system, the execution of prisoners, forced abortions and persecution of religious and minority groups.

Ethical questions surrounding the plastination and display of human remains, however, are not limited to those of consent. In an email to LifeSiteNews, Dr. von Hagens’ Director of Communications, Gail Hamburg, expounded on the ethics of the BODY WORKS displays and referred to the “long history in Catholicism of preserving and praying to the remains of saints” such as Saint Catherine Labore, “enshrined for all to see at Rue de Bac, Paris”, and St. Francis Xavier, whose body “is on display in Goa, India. 

Gomez wrote that the display “invites contemplation about death, consciousness, and soul through the post mortal body, and provokes philosophical and religious self recognition”.

But Christian theologians and some Jewish authorities are saying that the displays are inherently offensive to human dignity. While Catholic teaching does not object to the use of cadavers for legitimate scientific or medical research, it insists that the sacredness of human life translates to the dignity of the body, even in death. To Catholics, the body is “a temple of the Holy Spirit,” a place where God Himself dwells, and will be raised up from death and glorified on the last day.

It is not only Christians who object. Orthodox Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein, an advisor to Body Worlds, said, “Jews should be aware that this is a fundamentally un-Jewish way of treating bodies.”

“We view the body as an instrument that brought holiness to the world, since the body is the vehicle that enables the soul to do its job. Every part of Jewish funeral practice stresses that there is this element of holiness [in the body]. We view holiness as something that human beings can and do create, and it leaves lasting effects. Therefore, the notion that the body is something that can be disposed of at will as long as you have the consent of the deceased is foreign and repugnant to Judaism.”

“Just as you can’t take sefer Torah [Torah scroll] and use it as wallpaper for a synagogue, you can’t take a body and cut it up and put it on display,” he said.

The Body Worlds exhibit will continue at the Museum of Science and Industry in Manchester until June 29. The Bodies…the Exhibit display continues at the Cincinnati Museum Center at Union Terminal until September 1.

  See related LifeSiteNews report:

  Plastinated Body Display “Objectifies” People Edmonton Bishops Warn