Meet the cheery Britons signing up for plastic immortality

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The Independent Online

They could end up being flayed and gutted, or sliced and diced, but from the looks on their faces they could hardly wait.

They could end up being flayed and gutted, or sliced and diced, but from the looks on their faces they could hardly wait.

These were Britain's future contribution to Body Worlds – the controversial exhibition of human corpses – meeting Professor Gunther von Hagens, the man who will eventually fill their cells with plastic and put them on show.

More than 250,000 people have seen the exhibition in the East End of London since it was launched in March, and yesterday 13 were produced who had agreed to donate their bodies to the professor upon their deaths.

There was a housewife, a student, a stable hand, and a supervisor for a car park company. Ranging in ages from 17 to 77, they were articulate and eerily cheerful. "Better to leave my body to the professor here to take apart than have the maggots do it," said Juanita Carberry, 77, a former seafarer and author from London. "I am a great recycler so I thought what better use could I put my body to than to recycle it for educational purposes?"

Whether the exhibition is purely educational or a licence to print money is a moot point among his peers in the field of anatomy. More than eight million people around the world have seen the travelling exhibition – tickets in London are £10 – but the German professor claims he is €2m (£1.28m) in debt.

"Why shouldn't he make some money out of us?" said Phillip Beet, 45, a car park supervisor from Leicestershire. "You never see poor undertakers or florists, do you? I have been a combat medic, a psychiatric nurse and a counsellor, so I've seen many anatomical models, but these are the best in educational terms.

"If my bits and pieces can be used to further scientific knowledge, then that's better than being burnt or dumped in the ground to rot," he said.

Not everyone was so sure. Aware of the recent organ-retention scandals in British hospitals, the professor had invited along parents whose children's body parts had been used after their deaths. Representatives of the parents' group at Alder Hey Children's Hospital in Liverpool declined the invitation. But two bereaved women from the National Committee in relation to Organ Retention did attend, and expressed mixed feelings about the show.

"He says he always gets the consent of relatives, but he also admits that he accepts bodies from places like America where they die unclaimed and without papers," said Michaela Willis, whose son, Daniel, died one week after he was born. Daniel's heart was subsequently retained for research. "But I can't say I have any problem with the exhibition itself. It would be hard to argue that it wasn't educational."

Professor von Hagens aims to establish three permanent exhibitions – in Europe, Asia and America – and to build a "Museum of Man" before he retires, a project likely to cost €30m.

Whether he is a snake oil salesman or an anatomical visionary is a matter for consideration, even as one leaves the show, past the Body Worlds T-shirts for €16 (£10), the dissected hand key-ring (€2.50) or the watch featuring a "human pelvis slice". (€8).

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