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Visitors observed a cadaver at an exhibit in Los Angeles in 2004.
Visitors observed a cadaver at an exhibit in Los Angeles in 2004. (David McNew / Getty Images)

Traveling cadaver show wants you

Body exhibit seeks donors in Boston

GUBEN, Germany -- Dr. Gunther von Hagens, the German inventor of a body-preserving process called plastination, is always eager for volunteers, people willing to donate their corpses for his public anatomical displays. He says 6,800 individuals have pledged their mortal coils so far .

He hopes to add to that list when his traveling show reaches Boston later this month.

``Think of it as an alternative to being eaten by worms or going up in smoke," von Hagens said by phone from his Institute for Plastination in Heidelberg, Germany.

A donor might wind up as an exotic medical specimen (sliced, for example, into 1-millimeter-thick translucent body ``sheets") or as a featured whole-body exhibit in his occasionally condemned but wildly popular road show,

Body Worlds 2, which opens July 30 at the Museum of Science in Boston.

``My aim is to illuminate and educate through the beautiful arrangement" of bodies, he said. The 61-year-old physician, university lecturer, and anatomist-cum-artist's exhibitions of plasticized, partially dissected bodies -- an expectant mother cross-sectioned to reveal her unborn child, a man peeled to his musculature, carrying his skin like an old raincoat -- hover somewhere between the sublime and the unspeakable.

The Body Worlds exhibitions have attracted more than 18 million visitors on three continents and grossed an estimated $200 million, according to organizers. They also have been controversial: Police and prosecutors in at least four countries have investigated allegations -- none proven -- that von Hagens has purchased cadavers from grave robbers, prison wardens, bribed medical examiners, and other unsavory purveyors.

The Boston show, according to a museum handout, will include ``more than 200 real human specimens" -- that is, whole humans and parts -- peeled, plucked, and flayed to reveal the workings of nerves, tendons, blood systems, bones, and organs. All the exhibits have been preserved through the patented process von Hagens created in 1977, which involves ridding bodies of every ounce of fluid and soluble fat, then infusing them with silicon substances that impart indefinite life to dead tissue.

While his show makes its way around the globe, von Hagens also is planning to move into this economically depressed city on the German-Polish border.

He has purchased a derelict hat factory and wants to transform it into a $4.4 million facility to produce ``sheeted" cadavers -- each body sliced into 60 cross-sections. The full-body specimens aid doctors using magnetic resonance imaging, CAT scans, and other high-tech diagnostic tools, enabling them to compare ``real flesh" specimens with electronic scans.

The proposed body plant -- which joins similar facilities operated by von Hagens in Dalian, China, and Heidelberg -- has been greeted with outrage by many in Guben, including funeral directors (von Hagens advertises that donation of a body saves families funeral costs) and local religious denominations. The church leaders fear von Hagens will also use the factory to process corpses for his ``freak shows," as one cleric called the Body World exhibitions, not just for making bona fide medical specimens.

``The dignity of the human being does not end with death," said Rev. Michael Domke, a Lutheran pastor in Guben, echoing religious leaders elsewhere. ``These public displays of posed bodies are for public amusement, not education or science. They are an assault on human dignity."

In a referendum, Guben residents gave a green light to von Hagens's factory, seeing it as a chance to restore economic life to a failing city whose population has dropped by more than a third, to 22,000, since the 1989 collapse of Communist East Germany, with its state-subsidized industries.

``It's perfectly normal that people will have questions about von Hagens and what he does," said Gudrun Wendler, press assistant to Guben's mayor. ``But many feel he brings something positive -- a chance to save our beautiful old industrial buildings and to create some jobs. This factory is better than no factory."

That wasn't the view in nearby Sieniawa Zarska, Poland, where von Hagens was all but run out of town last year when he proposed opening a plastination plant there. The opposition was fueled partly by media revelations that von Hagens's father served as a Nazi SS sergeant -- not a pedigree likely to win friends in a country that suffered under the German occupation.

In 2004, von Hagens was accused in media reports of using the bodies of executed Chinese prisoners in his exhibits. Nothing was proven, but he cremated seven corpses from his plastination plant in Dalian after it was revealed that all had head injuries, suggestive of the Beijing regime's method of carrying out capital punishment with a bullet to the brain. Prosecutors in Heidelberg decided that von Hagens had not violated German law in acquiring the Chinese corpses.

More recently, a Russian medical examiner last year was convicted of supplying 51 bodies -- those of homeless people, patients from poverty wards of public hospitals, and prison inmates -- to a Siberian ``medical academy" that allegedly forwarded some of the bodies to von Hagens, according to Konstantin Naumkin, an investigator with the state prosecutor's office in Novosibirsk. Von Hagens, who was never charged in the case, has denied involvement.

Officials in Kyrgyzstan, a former Soviet republic, have complained that scores of bodies pirated from psychiatric hospitals and prison wards ended up in the hands of a medical institution supplying von Hagens. The German doctor severed ties with the institution and has created a more open process of procuring bodies in Kyrgyzstan, where he holds an professorship at the Kyrgyz State Medical Academy.

``I have not always been as careful as I should, but I have also been targeted by people more interested in sensationalism than truth," von Hagens said.

US museums that have displayed von Hagens's work have appointed committees of doctors, medical professors, and even religious leaders to probe his methods and policies in obtaining bodies. These investigations have found that the ``The Plastinator," as he calls himself, appears to have stayed with guidelines acceptable to medical ethicists.

To admirers, von Hagens's work is reminiscent of great Renaissance artists whose dissections of cadavers -- undertaken to better understand the body's form for art's sake -- led to greater understanding about how the body functions. Detractors compare him to carnival hucksters who invariably tout as ``educational" their ghoulish displays of pickled fetuses, shrunken skulls, and yellowed skeletons.

``There's a darkness to this man, an infatuation with death that goes beyond scientific curiosity," said Reiner Fuellmich, a German lawyer who has represented a Russian woman, Svetlana Kretshetova, who believes her father's body was sold illegally to von Hagens as part of the case involving the medical examiner. ``It has never been proven that he's done anything illegal. But he keeps showing up in the gray areas."

Von Hagens is a rare piece of work -- with his big toothy grin, a penchant for posing for pictures with his arms buried elbow-deep in entrails, and his trademark black hat. The headwear is similar to one worn by the cadaver-probing dissectionist in one of von Hagens's favorite works of art: Rembrandt's famously creepy painting ``The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolas Tulp."

Von Hagens shocked London in 2002 by performing an autopsy before a paying audience in an art gallery, a throwback to the 17th and 18th centuries when surgeons often carried out profitable public dissections.

As with other Body Works exhibitions, stacks of donor forms will be available in Boston along with helpful advice (``If your relatives object to you donating your body for plastination, you may wish to have a lawyer witness your signature"). And like the others, the Boston exhibit is likely to draw some protests and picketing by religious groups.

But such criticism hasn't hurt much at the box office at other stops. Von Hagens's exhibitions have wowed audiences in 35 cities in 11 countries, including Tokyo, Los Angeles, Singapore, and Brussels -- usually in high-class science centers or medical museums.

Von Hagens considers himself a scientist first and foremost. But he doesn't mind being tagged a promoter.

``Every good teacher has to be something of a showman," he said. ``Certainly, there is `shock value' in these exhibits. But that doesn't take away from the lessons they hold about how the body works and how plastination allows people to see this marvel. The slices [of whole bodies] are as radiant and beautiful as a church's stained glass window."

Asked how long a plastinated body might survive, von Hagens said ``forever."

``Well, thousands upon thousands of years, anyway," he said. ``Longer than the Egyptian mummies. My process is superior."

Petra Krischok of the Globe's Berlin bureau contributed to this report. Globe correspondent Tom Parfitt also contributed from Moscow.

Photo Gallery PHOTO GALLERY: Body Worlds 2
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