Unrest in Pieces
A Job at Bodies: The Exhibition Is More than a Paycheck—It's a Moral Dilemma
There was something different about him. He was powerful and tall, every bit of muscle developed to its full capacity. His pectoral and deltoid muscles bulged from his bones in tight bundles.
This man was stunning when he was alive.
I was standing on the third floor of 800 Pike Street, along with about 30 other people—live people—the first time I saw him. The 30 had been hired to work at Bodies: The Exhibition. I wondered if anyone else noticed how muscular this body was compared to the other ones. I stared at him; I felt like a voyeur.
I almost didn't take the job. When the manager at Bodies called, he wanted me to come in for an "orientation" in exactly 45 minutes. It was short notice. But I had moved to Seattle from New York a week ago, and I had been on four interviews already. I didn't need another interview; I needed a job.
It is apparent to even the most casual observer that all of the people on display are of Asian descent. As it turns out, they are all Chinese, preserved by Dr. Sui Hongjin in Dalian, China. When I Googled Dr. Sui, I was flooded with information about his feud with his previous employer, Dr. Gunther von Hagens. Sui and von Hagens had worked together on a previous exhibition of dead bodies, but Sui had secretly negotiated another deal with Atlanta-based Premier Exhibitions.
The Google results didn't stop with this professional feud.
There are many, albeit unsubstantiated, allegations that the corpses in the Bodies exhibit might be executed Chinese prisoners. The Laogai Research Foundation is a nonprofit group fighting the human-rights abuses of the Chinese government. Their website, www.laogai.org, offers detailed accounts of the Chinese government selling the organs of executed prisoners. Some paint the Chinese government in an even darker light, alleging the government kills inmates specifically to harvest organs, using genetic tests to find matches for "customers."
China executes people at a staggering pace. Chinese officials claim to have executed 1,700 prisoners last year, but activists estimate the actual total is somewhere between 3,500 to 10,000 prisoners annually. If it is 10,000 people a year, China has the dubious distinction of executing more people than every other government on earth combined.
With all those executed prisoners lying around, you have to wonder: Would a government that sells human organs also sell a whole human body?
My class of trainees and I sat through a two-hour lecture from our new supervisor. He was very explicit about how we should answer questions concerning the source of the bodies. We were to tell curious patrons that they all died of natural causes and that Chinese law allows unclaimed bodies to be used for education, just like here in the United States. If people asked why the bodies were 100 percent Chinese, we were to tell them it was because Asia is home to the best dissectors and anatomists in the world. If they were unsatisfied with those explanations, we were to call for a supervisor.
I am often assigned to mingle with the crowds viewing the exhibit. There isn't very much eye contact inside the galleries; everyone seems a little ashamed of themselves for being there. Some patrons stand out in my memory: A woman hooked up to an oxygen tank refusing to look at the pair of cigarette-blackened lungs in the room dedicated to the respiratory system; a doctor, ignoring the ubiquitous "Please Do Not Touch" signs, placing his hands on a specimen; a little girl scolding her mother for referring to a specimen as "he" instead of "it."
So far only one guest has asked me where the bodies came from. She wanted to know specifically if the Chinese government was involved. I told her I wasn't sure.
Here I am, with the creepiest job in town at the creepiest time of year, literally staring death in the face every day at work. And every day after work, I leave haunted by that one stunning specimen—the man with the pecs, the shoulders, the abs. How did he die? What fatal disease could leave such musculature intact? What could strike down such an Adonis?
Perhaps a gunshot to the back of the head. His family may not even know when he was executed; the only confirmation of his death would be an invoice from the People's Republic of China for the price of the bullet that killed him. Perhaps he was unlucky enough to be a genetic match for a Chinese government official who needed a heart or lungs.
I feel ashamed of myself when I look on his dead body. And when I think about the strategic location of his body—at the end of the tour and beside a sign that says "To See Is to Know"—I feel heartsick. The truth is, we don't know. We will never know. Only that man knows how he died. We can only wonder.