Of Corpse

Question 15:
Other than “jolly,” in your opinion, what word(s) would best complete the following phrase, ” ‘Tis the season to be…” ?

Deck the halls with boughs of holly.
Fa la la la la, la la la la.
Tis the season for dead bodies.
Fa la la la la, la la la la.

Wait a minute…dead bodies?

Well, yes.

My parents, my aunt, Fuzzy and I spent much of the day at the Museum of Science and Nature, in Dallas’s Fair Park. We began with a guided tour of the original Natural History museum, from curator Becky Rader, who also took us down into the admin offices, where we hung out with a real-life paleontologist, an incredibly handsome and gregarious fellow who talked to us about visits to various digs in Alaska, and also got to see the Jar Room (which is, just as it sounds like, a room full of specimens in jars.) Severus Snape would have felt quite at home in the jar room, with its shelf after shelf of pickeled snakes, skinks, turtles, frogs, and other such creepy crawlies. On the way to the jar room, we brushed past the Live Animal Room , with it’s warning sign: CAUTION: Poisonous Arthropods Within. We take no responsibility for your safety. Do I need to mention that we did NOT enter the poison bug room?

But we did visit the climate controlled Collection Room. A room full of amazing deep-drawered file-cabinets and coolers, all on rollers so that you could create aisles where you needed to be. Young Kelly, intrepid keeper of the collection, walked us in and said, “What do you want to see? Bird mounts we don’t use? Bats and mice for skin studies? Minerals? ” And let us look at whatever we wanted, rolling open aisles with as much magical aplomb as ever witnessed in a J.K. Rowling novel. And so we indulged ourselves, looking at geodes, and shark jaws (“Large shark jaw,” said my aunt looking at a blackened shark tooth easily three inches long. “It certainly is.” “Don’t worry,” I told her, reading the label, “It’s megalodon. They’re extinct.”

She showed us a stuffed owl and offered to then open the paleontology drawers, but we were running out of time, so we browsed the top floor of the museum without a guide, then walked along the lagoon to the The Science Place, which has merged with the Natural History museum to become one unit.

We had a quick lunch, then moved along to the Imax theatre, where we saw a six-minute flyover of Dallas and had fun trying to find the ComedySportz Arena, among all the other buildings, and then a BBC co-production about the human body. There was collective laughter during the bit where the soundtrack played “Let’s Get it On,” while the video was sperm valiantly trying to fertilize an egg, and collective oooh-ing at the images of newborns swimming in a “Mommy and Me” aquatics exercise. We left the theatre glad that none of us had to deal with a five-year-old that evening.

And then we went to BodyWorlds, the controversial exhibit featuring the anatomical display of real human bodies (you can see it, sort of, during one sequence in the latest James Bond film, I’m told). Even after browsing the website, it was difficult to know what to expect with all the hype. “It’s corpses,” was the first assumption, and while technically that’s true, it’s not at all what the exhibit really was.

First, you are eased into the exhibit gently, with a series of quotations about the wonders of the human body. Then you see the first specimen case, cross sections of human bones. If you’ve never seen the inside of a bone, it looks a little like layers of dense gauze. After the case, was the ligament skeleton, a human skeleton with most of the ligaments still intact. It was not in a case, merely arranged on a platform, with a caution sign warning, “Do not touch.”

The warnings were in no way ironic, because the prevailing sense was WANTING to touch. The crowd, allowed into the exhibit gallery in small controlled groups, entered laughing and talking, and was hushed almost instantly, with the general tenor of the group being reverence, awe, profound wonderment. As we walked through the various rooms, each displaying bodies, body parts, or in some cases, cross=section slices of bodies, we all – my group, and everyone around us – would look at a posed skeleton showing the lungs, say, and then breathe in, breathe out, try to correlate the placement and process of our OWN lungs with what we were seeing. At one point, looking at the ribcage and hips and pelvis of one of the bodies, my aunt paused, and felt along her own side, prodded her own hip. “I have to find this on my own body,” she said softly. “Find the correllation, see where the matches are.” At another display, focussing on the respiratory system, I stopped next to my mother, and realized we were both doing the same thing. “You’re suddenly hyper-aware of each breath, aren’t you?” I asked her, and when she said yes, I admitted the same thing, and we smiled at each other.

It should be noted, because I was asked this, that the only smell in this exhibit was that of the staffers eating Thai food on the other side of the curtains, out of sight. This is because the preservative method used on these bodies, all of which were people who volunteered to donate their bodies to science, and all of whom were kept anonymous so people would focus on the visual and not the backstory, is a type of modern mummification called Plastination. In some cases, colored dye was used to highlight certain things – blood vessels, for example – and there was labelling of specific parts, but not obtrusive amounts of labelling, and the entire exhibit was just…well, we’re back to profound.

Almost as amazing as the bodies themselves, many of which were posed to highlight certain things – strength, flexibility, etc. – was the crowd, which was multi-ethnic, and multi-generational. Staring at one of the posed bodies, a young girl asked her grandmother, “Is this a man or a woman?” And the grandmother replied gently that it was a man, and showed the girl the penis, the testicles (which, sans scrotum, looked like play-doh eggs on cords). “Oh, cool,” she said, and moved off to the next display.

Near the end of the exhibit, in the last gallery, was a curtained off section focussing on childbirth, with a collection of preserved human fetuses from 16 – 33 weeks of gestation. (It was noted that some were over 80 years old, and all had died of ‘natural’ causes). Most powerful was the posed body in this exhibit, that of a woman who died while eight months pregnant, her unborn child perishing with her. She was in a reclining position, with her abdomen windowed to display the fetus pushing her internal organs up toward her heart and lungs, and it was beautiful, and poignant.

Before leaving the galleries, we were given the opportunity to write in a guest book, and I confess that before I wrote my brief entry, I read some others. Overwhelming numbers of them had words like, “haunting” “amazing” “wow” and “cool.”

We were all very quiet on the way home, digesting what we had seen, moved and changed by the experience. We all came to the conclusion that this exhibit should be required viewing by all biology students and medical students. And we all agreed that it was fascinating and overwhelming and intense.

The museum states that it takes about 90 minutes to explore the galleries. I’d allow more time, because it’s truly intriguing, to see the human body, the thing we all inhabit, the one common element we have across ethnic, culture, and gender lines, so exposed. Seeing this, you would never want to take a life again, never want to cause harm, never want to overlook the tiniest moment of a long and fruitful life.

CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 Of Corpse by Melissa Bartell is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.