The debate about the ethics of collecting and displaying human remains went mainstream recently with this CNN article about a man who stole over sixty human brains and other specimens from the Indiana Medical History Museum and tried to sell them on Ebay. Morbid Anatomy Museum's scholar in residence Evan Michelson is a researcher into the history of such collections, in contexts both sacred and secular. Following is her thoughtful and considered response to the CNN article, which went so far as to single out her show "Oddities" as "being illustrative of a growing trend for collecting curiosities, particularly anatomical specimens."
A CNN article published on January 3, 2014 chronicled the arrest of a young man who stole some early brain specimens from an Indiana medical museum to sell on Ebay. In the article the TV show "Oddities" was cited as being illustrative of a growing trend for collecting curiosities, particularly anatomical specimens. Said the executive director of the museum: "it's definitely bizarre. It's infuriating that they do not have respect for the human remains." This statement raises a few important points: I think everyone can agree that the illegal buying, selling and hoarding of exhumed or pilfered human remains is deeply disrespectful, repugnant, and indefensible on moral and legal grounds. No one can condone or defend such ghoulish goings-on. What is not being addressed, however, is an unavoidable truth: humans have always lived with, loved, and learned from our dead.Image sourced here.
The urge to collect, display and venerate human remains is nothing new: it stretches back through the millennia, and plays a vital role in the history of science, medicine and many religions across cultures and around the globe.The widespread practice of ancestor worship originated at a time before recorded history (and is still practiced to this day). The gathering of bones is an irrepressible and primal human urge. Humans have long honored our dead with altars, elevating bones (particularly skulls) to a level of intimate spiritual totem. In many cultures the presence of human remains brings both comfort and continuity. From the Tibetan Kanling (a flute made from a human thigh bone) to the mummies of Palermo to the gorgeous calligraphy of 19th century French memorial hair work, to be in the material presence of the dead is to be one with generations past, to commune with the spirits, to ask favors, to remember, to harness power and to connect with the infinite.
In the service of science and medicine, human remains (such as those pilfered from the museum) have long been essential. It is only through contact with the dead that the secrets of the living have been revealed. The great anatomical insights of the classical physician and philosopher Galen (who primarily studied the anatomy of primates and pigs) are often overshadowed by the many glaring inaccuracies. These fatal mistakes ruled the study of anatomy for more than 1300 years, until anatomists like Andreas Vesalius delved into the human body proper to uncover a more accurate and comprehensive map of our internal architecture. In the 16th century depictions of these anatomical discoveries entered our collective human consciousness, and human dissections became works of high art and an essential part of the great humanist movement that flowed through the Renaissance and powered the scientific revolution. There followed the era of the beautiful corpse, when ceroplasts like Ercole Lelli and Clemente Susini created wax corpses and anatomical moulages of such surpassing beauty and accuracy that they inspired Popes, Emperors and commoners alike to see human anatomy as an important discipline worthy of respect and wonder. The human corpus had at last become a part of high and low common visual culture.
The preservation and display of actual human remains is a time-honored tradition in the great Positivist cities of the Western world, and most centers of learning had their own anatomical collections. These specimens of human anatomy were artfully prepared and displayed, and they illustrate the collective human journey from the realm of superstition through the refinements of natural philosophy and eventually to the rise of modern science. Exhibitions like "Body Worlds" still draw large crowds, eager to examine up-close what is so often kept hidden, and so often considered taboo. The sourcing of the "Body Worlds" cadavers is cause for justified legal and moral scrutiny, but their public display is an enlightening, time-honored tradition. For centuries, museums of anatomy have housed human specimens that are at once didactic, metaphorical and breathtakingly beautiful. These anatomized specimens can still be seen on exhibition in museums and in private collections, and they still provide unparalleled insight into our earthly selves. Anatomy is now digitized, and our bodies (down to a microscopic level) are available at the click of a button, but there is no substitute for the visceral presence of preserved anatomy; it is the best way to know ourselves.
Nowhere is the power of human remains more evident than in the evolution of the Christian religion and the rise of the Roman Catholic Church; there the collection and adoration of human body parts reached its artistic and spiritual pinnacle. The cult of the saints guaranteed that human remains would take center stage in the evolving political, economic and spiritual journey of the West. Religious pilgrims travelled great distances to be in the presence of the bones of the early martyrs, and the wealth thus generated drove an unprecedented competition for relics and a trade in human body parts (particularly in Western Europe) that determined the power centers of the modern world. We are all living in a map shaped by the preservation, display and possession of the dead.
The Temple of the Tooth in Kandy, Sri Lanka is home to the tooth of the Buddha, one of the most celebrated relics on Earth. Once a year the relic is featured at a 10 day festival that includes fire dancers, musicians, street performers and scores of elephants. It draws an estimated crowd of one million participants, making it one of the largest Buddhist gatherings in the world. It is obvious that there is something irresistible about our anatomy, something that reaches us on a primal level. We fear and worship human remains, we shun death but we are irresistibly drawn to the dead. That young man who stole those brains broke the law and showed great disrespect in the commission of that crime. The instinct to collect, display and commune with the dead, however, is not as bizarre or disrespectful as some may think: it connects us with our earthly selves, and allows us to glimpse eternity.