This exhibition of the dead need not be banned

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The Independent Online

Grieving parents have an authority that does not derive from statute and takes little account of logic. So, when the parents of children whose organs were removed at Alder Hey hospital protest at a proposed exhibition of anatomical grotesqueries the first instinct might be to give way before their distress.

Resistance to their demands that it be banned is not exactly stiffened by the fact that the exhibition in question – which consists of flayed and preserved cadavers posed in lifelike positions – appears to be largely devoid of creative merit. The "artist", Gunther von Hagens, a professor of anatomy at the University of Heidelberg in Germany, has claimed some therapeutic powers for his carnival side show – noting that 10 per cent of Belgian visitors vowed to give up smoking after visiting it – but in the absence of peer group review it would probably be unwise to lean too heavily on a public-health defence.

Among the 175 body parts and 25 corpses in the touring exhibition, which opens in London next week, is the body of a pregnant woman, her womb open to reveal the foetus, and a man with his skull cut away to display his brain. The object of the exhibition is not to create great art. But then nor is it to arouse mere scandal, nor – given recent exhibitions by Damien Hirst and the various shows of anatomical models, can it be said to be outrageous.

For the Department of Health to refuse permission for the show under the 1832 Anatomy Act would be a capitulation to superstition, not to social decency. As Alder Hey itself demonstrated, when it comes to death, few of us are rationalists. We cling to the notion that human remains are something more than inert matter, that they should be treated with a special, even magical reverence.

But flesh cannot be insulted or have its trust betrayed, only human beings can – and private feelings about the dead, however powerful, should not be imposed on the public. If respect for the dead is really the issue in the case of Professor von Hagens's morbid freak show, then respect should be shown for the wishes of the donors who supplied his raw material, all of whom happily signed up to make a posthumous exhibition of themselves. If public decency is what's at stake, on the other hand, then disgusted members of the public should take care they don't accidentally pay for admission. Banning it would be a primitive reflex, not a civilised one.