Thoughts On: Body Farms, Anatomy Museums and Consent

Note: old post, slightly edited

This is one of those cases in which for a long time I had to really think about why I felt the way I feel about a certain thing. So here’s the deal: I am not opposed to art exhibits or museums which display human bodies, I was brought to an anatomy museum as a freshman in high school, and while it was a little disturbing for a 13-14 year old (particularly the severely malformed fetuses and the poster book of a sliced pregnant woman), I do not oppose their existence. Of course I am also fully aware that body farms and autopsies performed for medical training are invaluable to our society and even if I were opposed to the former, the latter is undeniably essential. Here’s my one caveat though: the people who are used have to have consented to this while they were alive. I am firm on this, and I did not go to one of the body exhibits in Dublin because I was told that the majority of the bodies used were unclaimed as opposed to voluntarily donated. Why, though, do I feel this way?

I obviously am not religious or superstitious in any way. I do not believe that the “souls” of those people will “know” what is being done to their bodies and upset them. I do not believe that they will become angry ghosts for the way that their bodies are being treated. I do not believe that any of them will be denied access to heaven because they were not buried in a certain way. Why, then, am I so adamant about consent, when they would never know any better anyway?

The answer came to me when I was talking to a friend of mine who is considering visiting the Human Body Exhibition in Milan. She has never been to one of these before nor has she ever seen an autopsy, so while she is very curious she is unsure how she will react. Discussing it, she said that she would probably be very sad, because she will be thinking about how these bodies were real live people once. To which I responded that that would not make me sad in the slightest, so long as I knew that those people had wanted their bodies to be displayed in such a way. And that is when it clicked.

Respecting their last wishes is my way of preserving their humanity. I will always remember that those bodies were people, I cannot disassociate what they are now with what they were. However, knowing that this is what they wanted for themselves and their bodies would make me happy to participate, not sad. I do not fear death the way that many others do and I accept it, however I feel that respecting someone’s wishes is respecting their humanity. I would find it incredibly sad if I knew that the exhibit was filled with unclaimed bodies, that just because those people had outlived their family or perhaps died in the wrong place at the wrong time that somehow made them less human, less worthy of respect, less deserving of choosing the fate of their bodies. I would feel for those people, I would wonder what their lives were like, what they would have wanted, why they died alone and unwanted. On the other hand, to know that the last wish of the person I am looking at was to be looked at by me and the thousands of others that walk through the exhibit makes me feel happy to oblige. I would not think on their past life with sadness but with curiosity and a smile on my face. Finally, I feel that there is an inherent hypocrisy in giving some people the right to do with their body as they choose but deny that right to others.

I may not have really explained myself that clearly, so feel free to ask or bring up another tangent. I am also aware that this is very subjective, so what are your thoughts on the subject?

Have you ever been, or would you ever go to a body exhibit or a human anatomy museum?


  1. chris61 says

    I’ve been to a couple of Body Works exhibits and to a medical museum. I have no problem with unclaimed bodies being used. Respect the humanity of people while they are living – dead is dead. I would however be uneasy with a body being used against the wishes of a living relative irrespective of the wishes of the deceased.

    • kagekiri says

      Yeah, if they actually suffered in life because they thought their body would be displayed, and they got displayed anyway, then it seems potentially a bit immoral, because you’re kind of inflicting the “fear of being put on display against their wishes” on currently living humans (though benefits to knowledge miiight balance it out in a medical context?). If it hurts their relatives or potential descendants, then, again, I’d be conflicted.

      I’m a little iffy on how much power the deceased’s living family should have AGAINST any specific wishes of the deceased, but that might be because I do want my organs donated or made useful somehow (or just decomposed quickly/efficiently), and all my relatives are pretty religious and might fight that wish.

  2. anat says

    How do you feel about displaying skeletons and other remains of people who died a very long time ago, such as Ötzi the Iceman?

    • thoughtsofcrys says

      That’s a very interesting question. In my gut I feel differently about it, but I have to think about why that is, and whether or not I have a good reason to feel differently about it, or if I’m being a hypocrite.

  3. brucegee1962 says

    Yes, I’m very torn on issues like Native Americans vs. anthropologists. On the one hand, there is a vast amount of information about humans on the North American continent — how they got here, what they achieved — that can be gained by studying these remains. On the other hand, the complaints of their descendants seem legit. On yet another hand, how many generations back do you get to claim your ancestors? Any of us could make a complaint about Lucy’s skull being exhibited, since we’re all descended from her people, but does that mean those complaints should be honored? If we just said “no study of bodies without consent,” then we never would have discovered anything about our origins.

    • thoughtsofcrys says

      As I said to anat, I have to think about how I feel about it when it comes to ancient remains and anthropology. It’ll probably be fodder for another post in future.

  4. Handsome Jack says

    Personally, I view it as a property thing. My body is my property and I get a say about how it’s used after I die, just like if I donate my car to charity posthumously. If I die, no one claims my car, and i didnt bequeath it to anyone, I’m fine with the government auctioning it or whatever. Same for my corpse.

    • says

      I’m with Handsome Jack on this one. The key is “no one claims it”.

      And I’m actually destined for one of the body farms here in Texas. With the health problems I got, organ transplant is probably not viable. At least, with the forensics lab, my body does some good. (And the family is on board with my decision, too)

  5. lorn says

    I have a profound disinterest what happens with my body after I die.

    I suppose it would be nice if my corpse could be used to benefit mankind. Saving a life, or three, after death with my still functional organs would be a good thing. Benefiting mankind by becoming an important part of a research project would be good. Even just helping a couple of candidate MDs learn anatomy would be a okay.

    As would feeding a family of cannibals, or some dogs, or to be used a fertilizer. Perhaps converted into soap and glue. Everyone needs soap. Or made into leather, as the joke goes, a woman’s bicycle seat. I hear human leather tans up beautifully. Being dead, I promise I won’t feel insulted or abused. Is it right or good, I don’t know, because, in this version, I’m dead.

    • anat says

      Another helpful use – for modeling effects on the human body of crashes with various automobiles under various conditions.

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