Tag Archives: death

“Let’s see what you’re made of.”

The exhibit starts in a bright red antechamber. In the background is a faint throbbing noise, an incessant heartbeat. I see two dozen large red barrels bathed in red light, which represent the amount of blood my heart is going to pump today — 1800 gallons at a pace of about 3 ounces per beat. It takes me a moment to comprehend this.

I do not marvel at my body nearly as much as I should.

It is the aim of Dr Angelina Whalley that we all do so more.

Dr Whalley, a licensed physician, is both the technical director and creative visionary behind Body Worlds: The Story of the Heart. She has been the Director of the Institute for Plastination in Heidelberg, Germany since 1997, and married to its founder, Dr Gunther von Hagens, since 1992. She reports that 29 million people around the world have seen a Body Worlds Exhibit, which is open now through July 18 at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science. (Click for dates in Philadelphia and Calgary.)

For the first time, a this incarnation (haha) of Body Worlds centers on a theme, in this case the heart. Throughout, you can see how the heart both functionally and symbolically interacts with other organs and systems. In addition, the room that housed a sub-exhibit of pregnant and fetal specimens in past tours ( agonizing for me back in 2006) has only embryos and fetal specimens this time. It is in a separate area so that visitors can be prepared and enter only on purpose.

I had the chance to interview Dr Whalley, who spoke to a small group of journalists the day before the exhibit opened. “This exhibit changes people. Everyone has a body, but this way we can really experience the sacredness of it.”

The exhibit contains whole-body plastinates arranged in real-life poses (well, real-life if you are an ice skater, gymnast, javelin thrower), as well as organ plastinates (heart, liver, lungs, etc) and body slices.

Some visitors are squeamish, some find it fascinating. Many are squeamishly fascinated.

What is plastination? It’s a process pioneered by anatomist Dr von Hagens whereby a body is steeped in acetone for several weeks, dissolving fat and eliminating fluids. That stage is followed by immersion in a liquid polymer applied by constant vacuum. Finally the specimen is posed and cured with gas and epoxy to set. Each full-body specimen requires 1500-3000 man-hours to prepare.


More than 11,000 people worldwide have donated their bodies to the Institute for Plastination — 42 of them from Colorado, and 9 from Denver. The thought of donating my own body makes me squirm, but no more so than considering the other options. Why not sit in a yoga pose forever, especially one I don’t have the flexibility to do while alive?

One thing I noticed while moving through the exhibit: all the whole-body plastinates seemed uniform. Each was about my height. Each was muscular and with amazingly flexible joints. Each was posed spectacularly — bearing a large load or bending in an extreme way. Other than gender (which is often conspicuous but never gratuitous), I couldn’t tell any of the specimens apart, save for the poses. The hockey players locked in a fight for the puck looked just like the hurdler and the torch-bearer. The features I would normally use to discern one person from another — body shape, skin tone, facial features — were missing.

I asked Dr Whalley if those, uh, people were selected for their physiques, and she agreed that the most aesthetically beautiful were chosen for the full body poses.

And she added that we are all this beautiful under our skin. “We are trained to look at skin,” Dr Whalley said, “but beneath those differences that you can see, we are each a magnificent work of art.”

Here are some marvel-inducing facts:

  • Your heart will beat about 2.5 billion times by the time you’re 75 years old.
  • You will breathe about 20,000 times. Today.
  • Your shoulder joint is built to have the widest range of motion of all the joints.
  • Your hip joint sacrifices a little range of motion for the sake of stability in bearing the weight of the torso.
  • Your knee joint is built to bear the greatest load of all the joints.

Dr Bridget Coughlin, the Museum’s Curator of Human Health, explains why the Museum offers the Body Worlds exhibit. “This look inside has the power to transform health in our community.”

If my reaction of wonderment to Body Worlds is any indication, Dr Coughlin’s words may very well be true.

Note to Denver-area readers: Hours and prices can be found at the Museum’s website. Large crowds are anticipated and all tickets are timed. If you hope to see this exhibit, don’t delay in making your plans.

Photography by Mary Elizabeth Graff

Cross-posted on MileHighMamas.

One of my stupider moments

Recently I wrote about my own death (in case you’re new to my blog, I am not dying at a faster clip than anyone else, as far as I know).

Did you ever notice how people are so squeamish about death? Until the last six or seven decades, I imagine that death was not so hidden. During agricultural times, I think we were used to farm animals dying and to dressing our own dead, to having their remains sit in the parlor downstairs until we marched them in a pine box to the family plot in the community cemetery. Perhaps death wasn’t such a spook then.

Now, we are so unfamiliar with death that we don’t know how to process it when it inevitably comes into our lives. I try to think about it now and then. To at least be unafraid of my own thanatal thoughts when they come up.

Witness the lagoon of quicksand that swallows me when I take this stand with my children.

The other day in the car, Tessa asked if we could visit the grave site of my grandma, GG (for “great grandma”). I explained that GG was buried in another part of the state and that it was too far to go to today. Reed then asked where I would be buried.

I haven’t shied away from difficult subjects before (such as adoption and birth). Matter of factly, and answering only the question that was asked, I said that I didn’t want to be buried. Can you see where this is going?

Tessa said, “Then what will happen to you, Mommy?” I explained that cremation was another way to deal with a body after a spirit no longer needs it. “What’s carmation?” asked Reed.I explained as best I could. And can I just say that I didn’t know that their school had had a fire drill earlier that week?

The back seat freak-fest began. The Wailing. The Gnashing of Primary Teeth. “No! Mommy! I don’t want you to burn!” “Don’t burn up, Mommy!” “Mommy! PROMISE US YOU WON’T BE CARMATIONED!!!”

I had to pull over.

Lest you ever find yourself in a similar situation, take it from me. Don’t try logic. Don’t say, “But then you won’t have to go ANYwhere to visit me — I’ll be wherever you want me to.” Don’t try metaphysics, like “Once my spirit is gone, I won’t need my body anyway.” Don’t lie to them by promising something you have no intention of doing (thankfully I stopped short of that).

And even I knew not to try “I’d rather be quick-fried to a crackly crunch than be digested by worms and maggots.”

Yup, I’m great at knowing what NOT to say. But I can’t tell you what TO say. Please, YOU tell ME. Because it’s bound to come up again.

The best I could come up with was my most cheerful, “So! What shall we have for dinner tonight — pizza or chicken nuggets?”

Contemplating my own death…for no good reason

I’m listening to the Six Feet Under theme song. “Why do people have to die?” intones Clair in the background of a kicky instrumental. “To make life important,” responds Nate, in a clip taken from the show and inserted in a kind of rappy-way.

I love that show. Gino and I have been watching the series as a way of passing time while he recovers from his full paralysis. I’m sure when he and Tami (my sister) got the box set for me last Christmas that they didn’t know HE’d be watching so much of it with me.

I’ve seen the whole Six Feet Under series so I know how it ends. Here’s a hint if you haven’t: The tag line for the final season is Everything. Everyone. Everywhere. Ends.

In the brilliant series finale, everything does end. And it makes me think of how I will end.

When Tessa was a toddler, and while we were waiting for Reed, she and I volunteered with a hospice agency. We visited first Loretta and then Edna once a week as they experienced the act of dying. I felt privileged as each of these ladies allowed me to witness this very private process.

As part of the training for hospice volunteering, I was to imagine my own death and write about it. The more familiar we could be with the idea of death, the less freaked out we would be when talking with our clients about it.

I knew that “dying in my sleep” was a cop out. But I wasn’t able to do much better. Here’s my imagined scenario: at the age of 77 (double my age at the time), I suffer a heart attack. I leave a loving husband, a grown daughter, a son-in-law and two grandchildren. Two songs from Rent are played at my memorial service: Seasons of Love and Finale B. And the hymn, Earth and All Stars. Did you notice I said “memorial” and not “funeral”?

I really, really, really don’t want to be buried. It’s not because I’m claustrophobic (I’m not). It’s the bugs and worms and decay. I have less of a problem with cremation (see Stiff for more info on both of these options). It’s the lesser of two evils for me. See how I explain THIS to my children.

Is there anyone else here who allows their mind to occasionally wander to these places? (Or am I just a freak?)

Do tell.