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Skinning Human Bodies in Dr. Death's Taxidermy Lab

A visit to Bodyworlds—a controversial exhibition that puts skinned, plastinated bodies on display—including those of pregnant women, deformed fetuses, and of people having sex.

by Natalie Mayroth
Mar 11 2016, 4:20pm

This article originally appeared on VICE Germany

I met Sarah at a party, where she told me she works as a taxidermist for Gunther von Hagens. The name "Gunther von Hagens" may sound a bit like the name of some genius German doctor who skins and prepares human bodies for a living, but there's reason for that: He is.

Von Hagens invented plastination—a technique that works to preserve bodies or body parts. Von Hagens is also the brain behind Bodyworlds, a controversial exhibition that puts skinned, plastinated bodies on display—including those of pregnant women, deformed fetuses, and people having sex. In 2002, he performed a public autopsy in a London theater—the first in over 170 years. These achievements, among other things, have earned him the title of "Dr. Death."

Von Hagens owns the Plastinarium—a plastination production facility in Guben, a German town near the Polish border. This is where Sarah works. Von Hagen is now 71 and suffering from Parkinson's, so he has largely stepped back from the business. But donated bodies arrive in the facility every day, and they are still preserved for educational purposes here.

Plastination—a technique developed by von Hagens in 1977 at Heidelberg University—involves replacing the fluid inside cells with plastic. His plastic models are legitimate educational materials from a research perspective, but preparing a body so that it's holding up its own skin or riding a dead horse doesn't necessarily function as an introduction to anatomy. But does that mean the doctor doesn't respect death and the integrity of the human body? Yes, according to the city of Berlin. In 2014, the city banned his ongoing exhibition, because it was in conflict with the city's burial laws. The human museum opened anyway, but the exhibition's future is still unclear. In December, a higher administrative court ruled against it. But as the court proceedings continue, the exhibition remains open.

Thinking this might be my only chance, I decided to visit Bodyworlds. On my way to Guben, I felt queasy. It's a two-hour train ride from Berlin, and I arrived at a train station in no-man's land. "If you want to see something, walk over to Poland," the taxi driver tells me. When I ask him if he's been to the Plastinarium, he shakes his head.

After entering the former hat factory, my first encounter with death is a winged giraffe climbing a palm tree. It's in good company. It's joined in the menagerie by another giraffe cut into sections and the skull of another giraffe that has been exploded into three parts. I have to take a few deep breaths as I wait for Sarah in the lobby. There's a strange smell in the air.

When Sarah shows up, we walk past human plastinates, transparent slices of anatomy, and wet specimens in glasses, as well as individual body parts and organs. We come to a glass room, flooded with light, where autopsy tables await the anatomical learning material, which will be processed there. The bodies that serve as the basis of von Hagens's work have, since 1982, all come from the same donation program.

The bodies that Sarah and her colleagues will eventually work on with forceps and a scalpel have to initially spend a year in a formaldehyde bath. The chemical stops the body's decay, while preserving the tissue. From start to finish, the procedure takes about 1,500 working hours—from the acetone bath to the plastic impregnation. In the end, the specimens are made up of about 70 percent plastic. I spoke to Sarah about working on the dead.

VICE: Sarah, you work as a taxidermist. How did this become your job?
Sarah: I met an artist who wanted to become a taxidermist for animals. I was fascinated when he told me about it. I had no idea it was a profession. It was exactly the right thing for me, both technically and artistically. So I called all the taxidermists in Berlin until I found an apprenticeship, and I learned on the job for a year.

Is it hard to get into this profession when there are hardly any apprenticeships?
In Germany, there's only one school for animal taxidermy. It's in Bochum. There are more in Norway. I assisted an artist there. When I found out that there was a taxidermy lab near Berlin, I applied and was invited to join.

How did your work in taxidermy move from animals to humans?
During my test phase, I was working on a snake. But I don't have any reservations, even about working on humans. I don't have any special inclinations, either.

What's the most unpleasant thing about this job?
Spending the whole day with the smell of formaldehyde. Mint extract helps with it though.

What are you doing right now?
Right now, I'm working on a specimen's feet. I'm getting rid of the fatty tissue with a scalpel. Then I'll be able to carve out the structures—namely the muscles, nerves, and vessels.

Do you get to decide what it will look like in the end?
We follow a plan when working. It tells us what the model should look like. These are educational specimens for schools in Egypt, Iran, and Iraq.

Do you know anything about the people who donate their bodies to your service?
I can tell how old they were at the time of death from their skin. You can't tell how old they were from the inside—and that also always depends on how athletic they were. Sometimes, we discover traces of disease like cancerous tumors. I don't know their names or anything like that. It's all anonymous.

How do you deal with death when it's in your face every day?
I know that I have to die at some point. To me, that's normal. I live my life with a relaxed nihilism.

Do the bodies ever seem abstract to you?
In a way, this is like surgery—you always work on one little, separate piece. You're pretty concentrated on the anatomy, and you forget that what you're working on was once a person.

What fascinates you about working on the human body?
The human mind can hardly grasp its complexity. You notice that when seeing visitors' reactions. A few weeks ago, someone told me he would rather be filled with marshmallows than imagine that this is what his insides look like. Realizing that what you see is real and that it's just some flesh and a few organs that keep you going, can be overwhelming. I think it's exciting how the body works automatically for years on end. I see it, but I also can't really grasp it.

Does your work have an ongoing influence on your life?
It's made me more conscious of my body, and I've taken steps to change my life because of that. For example, I don't get how my colleagues can walk past exhibited specimens of a smoker's lungs on their way to smoke a cigarette.

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