I walk past on the way to work each morning: Bodies, the Exhibition. Or, at least, I walk past an advertisement for it, featuring a man carrying a football as if to avoid an oncoming linebacker. The arresting thing about it is that he is dead and hasn’t any skin. The exhibition has been in New York for some months now, and similar shows have been popping up for the past year or so in major American cities. They are all for-profit, which means that the advertisements are everywhere and very nearly unavoidable. Dead, skinned bodies are to be found on bus shelters, taxi cars, billboards, newspapers, and so on. They are displayed in all sorts of interesting ways, such as playing tennis or riding horse, or simply chopped up into halves or quarters. Millions of Americans so far have paid their nickels to see the show, and judging by its extraordinary success, it is probably coming soon to a museum near you. Like Haley Joel Osment in The Sixth Sense, we are all seeing dead people these days.
One possible reaction is that there is nothing remarkable about the whole thing. One might say that the human specimen is a fascinating subject, and that this, in fact, is a wonderful teaching moment, which perhaps will lead us toward a greater appreciation of the delicate and wondrous workings of our bodies. Young people will be moved to study medicine and science, and we all will learn a thing or two, not least the importance of avoiding unhealthful behaviors like smoking. And, after all, this sort of thing has been done in medical schools for years¯what’s wrong with democratizing the academy and bringing their knowledge down to our level?
All true, I suppose. But I still wonder if¯leaving aside persistent and troubling questions about the possible use of executed Chinese prisoners¯there is something that justifies the uncomfortable feeling I get in the pit of my stomach each morning when I walk past the Bodies advertisement. Because I do feel uncomfortable, and it has been getting worse lately. It is, I’ll admit, essentially a knee-jerk reaction, but mightn’t there be something we should pay attention to in our knee-jerk reaction to the presence of the dead?
In our culture, despite increasing secularism, we still insist on having funerals in churches. Whatever else we might think of church, death is something that is too big for us, it seems¯and so we bring it to God. One always senses a peculiar hush at funerals¯it is almost as if we know, somehow, that reverent silence is what death requires of us. Death, I think, is a reminder of the worth of each individual as created by God, and of the eventual death that awaits us all. It shines its cold, hard light on each of us and reminds us of the important things in life, like wisdom, love, and virtue. The funeral liturgy of the Church reminds us also of the mystery of death: that, even though we are dust, and to dust we shall return, even still there is something in us that resists accepting its finality¯something, perhaps, like a soul. Wordsworth knew this, and the Church proclaims it, and we sense it still, every time we come into death’s presence.
We forget at our peril, I think, the fragility of this knowledge. It has not always been so. Men like Lenin praised the bloodiness of revolution, and Augustus Caesar built a temple to the glories of war, Mars Ultor. There is no necessity to our feeling of awe at death. Allan Bloom has said that we Americans have for years been busily trying to put death to death, and Richard Rorty has actually recommended it as a positive goal. To a large extent, we have been successful. Television shows like CSI routinize death and desensitize us to its power. Exhibitions like Bodies do so as well. Rather than seeing each body as a person , with a name and a family and a story, we are encouraged to see them as specimens. And instead of the reverence and mystery of the funeral liturgy, all is covered over with the desiccating patina of Science, Medicine, and Education. We ought be wary of this. There have been other times in history when this has happened; none of them have turned out well. I am not saying that the Bodies exhibition is to be compared to the "scientific" displays of Dr. Goebbels. I am saying that we should be very careful of what we are doing. The belief in the sacredness of human life is not a given of the late-modern world. We ought to remember the warning of Walker Percy: "We’ve got it wrong about horror. It doesn’t come naturally, but it takes some effort."