Body Worlds: Preserving Hope in Immortality


Gunther von Hagens claims to democratize anatomy through his controversial franchise Body Worlds—exhibits that display human and animal cadavers flayed, plastinated[1] and posed to reveal the body’s inner workings. While critics argue it is ethically dubious to profit from the public display of human cadavers, Body Worlds is widely popular. Since opening in 1995, 45 million people have visited one of the many exhibits worldwide and, since 1982, more than 17,000 people have donated their bodies for plastination. The donation program not only ensures there will be cadavers for future traveling and permanent exhibitions but also provides the most often cited ethical justification for using human cadavers. Unlike similar shows that display unclaimed bodies from China, Body Worlds displays cadavers of those who have given written permission, which is verified by directors at each venue. But even if ethical concerns are mitigated by the donation program, is this the best way to democratize anatomy?

As Lawrence Burns notes in his “Response to Open Peer Commentaries on ‘Gunther von Hagens BODY WORLDS: Selling Beautiful Education’: Signed, Sealed, Delivered,” it is striking that “the importance given to democratization rests on access to the object itself (i.e., the actual human cadaver) rather than the knowledge that is produced from the study of that object.”[2] Burns argues that wax models are sufficient resources for obtaining anatomical knowledge and adds, “Obviously, the model does not give that frisson of excitement that the plastinated specimen provides, but does seeing the ‘real thing’ make one an expert like the anatomist?” Certainly not. However, conceding Body Worlds provides at least some educational benefit, Burns’ observation raises another question: Why does a plastinated specimen offer a “frisson of excitement”?

Body Worlds’ success doesn’t stem from displaying real cadavers (viewers of the first exhibitions were afraid to approach the corpses because they were posed as corpses[3]), but from displaying real cadavers in freakish poses. Cadavers are posed cheating at cards, playing chess, holding up their own skin. One cadaver lounges with her uterus cut open to expose the plastinated fetus inside. The cadaver referred to as “Harry Potter’s father,” appears to be riding  “on a twisted broomstick that is, upon closer examination, his own spinal cord.”[4] The anatomy lesson, then, comes from the viewer trying to understand what she is looking at. Eva Tettenborn explains visitors of the exhibit view the cadavers as both freaks and ideal others that have resisted the “hegemony of both corporeal wholeness (demand of the living) and complete disintegrations (expected of the dead). Instead of the traditionally cited equality, death suddenly promises difference, individuality, and resistance to cultural expectations.”[5] And perhaps it is here we begin to question if von Hagens’ mission is really to democratize anatomy or sell viewers on the possibility of life after death.


[1] “Plastination is a unique process invented by Dr. Gunther von Hagens in 1977 to preserve specimens for medical education. The process replaces bodily fluids and soluble fat in specimens with fluid plastics that harden after vacuum-forced impregnation. After the bodies are fixed into lifelike poses, they are hardened with gas, heat or light. The plastinates show how our bodies respond internally to movements in everyday life, as well as during athletic activities” (

[2] Lawrence Burns, “Response to Open Peer Commentaries on ‘Gunther von Hagens BODY WORLDS: Selling Beautiful Education’: Signed, Sealed, Delivered,”The American Journal of Bioethics, 7(4): W1-W3, 2007.

[3] Dubby Harey, “Dozens of Human Corpses to be on Display in Auckland in Body Worlds Show,” The New Zealand Herald. Feb. 14, 2018.

[4] Daniel Engber, “The Plastinarium of Dr. von Hagens,” Wired, Feb. 12, 2013.

[5] Eva Tettenborn, “‘Outside of or Beyond the Human’: Gunther von Hagens’ Anatomy Exhibit ‘Korperwelten—Body Worlds’ As Contemporary Freakshow”, Atenea. Vol. 25 No. 1. June 2005.