TERRY PRONE: Our silent acquiescence to exhibiting the nameless dead is paradoxical

WHEN bereaved parents in this country found out that tissues and organs from their dead children had been retained by hospitals, they were outraged.

That, in most cases, the retention was done in the interests of research and disease prevention did not matter to those grieving parents. What mattered to them was the disrespect shown to the integrity of their babies’ bodies.

When, in the past few weeks, a swab once used to clean the dead face of Michael Collins, together with a lock of his hair, were presented as part of a public auction, disbelief and dismay were widespread, with people asking to what level had our respect for a fallen hero if such intensely personal items were to be sold to the highest bidder.

When, just last week, a vial of the late US president Ronald Reagan’s blood was put up for sale, the same reaction came into play. The blood had been preserved in the laboratory which had tested the president’s blood for lead following an attempted assassination in 1981. Online bidding was brisk, going to about €25,000 before strenuous opposition put a stop to the auction.

That anyone would want to pay money to own a sample of a dead president’s blood appalled people, in the same way the Irish public was appalled by the idea of a private citizen keeping in their home a physical element of a dead leader such as Collins.

The very possibility of owning, touching or gazing upon portions of a dead man is repellent, partly because of what such ownership and viewing would say about the purchaser but, more importantly, because it runs counter to the reverence for the dead we tend to assume we hold in Ireland. The fact that the auctions were speedily aborted, in this country and in the US, speaks to that respect. It’s a given. Or so we believe.

But if that’s the case, why are double- decker buses in our capital city carrying larger-than-life and larger-than-death renditions of dead men, multi-coloured and pleasingly posed? Why are versions of the same pictures appearing in national newspapers? The short answer is that the Human Body Exhibition has been retained in the city due to popular demand.

The slightly longer answer is that nobody seems to be making the connection between putting dead bodies — whole, entire and splendidly preserved — on display in the middle of Dublin and, on the other hand, our national rejection of the use of any portion of a dead person for personal or corporate profit or for research purposes.

The silent acquiescence has not been total. Revulsion has been expressed. Professor Des O’Neill of the Centre for Ageing, Neuroscience and the Humanities at TCD, in a letter to the Irish Times in February, stated that the exhibition “runs counter to virtually every principle of ethical practice in science”. The exhibition went ahead anyway, generated considerable publicity, and, if the bums-on-seats measure is applied, became the most successful event of its kind this year. Visitors came in droves, fascinated by the plasticised bodies. Parents brought their enthralled children and most of them would believe they were doing their offspring a favour by providing them with such an object-lesson in anatomy.

Nowhere else, they might claim, would young people get to see and understand the wondrous internal workings of the human body. Any teenager interested in, for example, going into medicine, could only gain from seeing the workings of muscle and sinew, organ and nerve, in situ in a real live person. Well, OK, in a real dead person.

Prof O’Neill had already dealt with that justification, pointing out: “Sharing the wonder of the human body could be alternatively and equally effectively achieved through the use of replicas or the imaginative artistic ventures of the Science Gallery.”

To no avail. The rationale was used by countless parents who, a little bit bothered by the implications of paying to view the dead, explained it away as essentially an educational tour designed to improve the understanding of their children. It must be accepted that young visitors to the exhibition undoubtedly gain a sense of how the human body works. The issue is the price. Not the payment at the door, but the coarsening of how the visitors view the dead.

Let’s take it into another arena completely. Within living memory, travelling circuses included outlying tents wherein, for a few coins, visitors could view enormously fat people, skeletally thin people, astonishingly hirsute people, people with physical deformities or people demonstrating strange behaviours, such as communicating only by barking like a dog.

Then the sensibilities changed and a consensus developed that paying to view individuals disadvantaged by nature might give those individuals a source of income, but was inimical to decency and human respect. Much the same process came into play in the 19th century when “going to Bedlam” or visiting what were then called lunatic asylums for the vicarious thrill of watching people with profound mental illness gradually became unacceptable.

Ah, yes, any one of the thousands who have gone to the Human Body Exhibition may say, but looking at the dead can do no harm to the dead. Which raises the issue of the sourcing of bodies for this purpose.

Back when it was difficult to find bodies for anatomical research, two Irish lads named Burke and Hare, living in Scotland, progressed from digging up the recently dead to murdering the half-alive in order to ensure the continuity of their lucrative cadaver supply lines. In the case of the Human Body Exhibition, however, we are assured that the bodies have been “legally donated” under Chinese law.

That this assurance comes from a Chinese professor who serves as general manager of Dalian Hoffen Bio-Technique, which processes bodies for use in exhibitions, is oddly discomfiting, since he gets a real and present commercial benefit from the display of the bodies. It has been suggested that one of the artificially-preserved corpses has a bullet hole in the head. It has further been suggested that the bodies may be those of prisoners. The one thing that is certain is that Chinese law related to dead bodies is not the same as Irish law. Yet we in Ireland queue up to pay money to see bodies sourced under circumstances about which we know little. What we do know is not encouraging. Prof O’Neill points out that Chinese city morgues can hand over unclaimed bodies for this kind of use — they do not need the consent of a next of kin.

“There are widespread concerns,” he says, “that families may not be aware of the loss of a loved one… In addition, the spectre of payment and trade in bodies has been raised, and the sum effect is to hugely degrade the respect due to the human body after death.”

Yet there they are, in newspaper ads and on buses. Nameless dead with no one to speak for them. Exhibited for profit in a country that became outraged over the preservation of tissues in a laboratory.


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