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J Med Ethics 39:652-653 doi:10.1136/medethics-2012-100983
  • Viewpoint
  • Commentary

The contested realm of displaying dead bodies

  1. Maja I Whitaker1
  1. 1Bioethics Centre, University of Otago, Dunedin, New Zealand
  2. 2Department of Anatomy, University of Otago, Dunedin, New Zealand
  1. Correspondence to Professor D Gareth Jones, University of Otago, PO Box 913, Dunedin 9054;gareth.jones{at}otago.ac.nz
  • Received 23 August 2012
  • Accepted 4 September 2012
  • Published Online First 4 October 2012

The Viewpoint article expressed the feelings of unease often encountered at the display of human corpses in museums, whether relating to prehistoric or recent times. The reasons frequently stem from what is seen as a lack of respect for the remains of another human being. In this instance, the underlying concerns are that the corpses are displayed naked, along with lack of consent from anyone with an interest in them. While these are legitimate queries, ethical interests extend further afield to include whether the corpses are identifiable, are prehistoric or recent, and the existence of living descendants. Additional interests include the uses to which corpses are put, namely, research, teaching and/or public displays.

In recent years, it has become commonplace to hear of human remains that had been held for many years by universities or museums being repatriated to indigenous people groups in America, Australia and New Zealand for subsequent reburial.1 ,2 However, the debate regarding the ethical uses to which dead bodies may be put has taken a surprising turn in recent years with the extremely popular, highly publicised, public displays of dissected and plastinated whole body cadavers.3

Over the years, most people have had few misgivings looking at the remains of prehistoric individuals, or Egyptian mummies.i Attitudes towards viewing mummies have been shaped by the perception that prehistoric remains are located outside our immediate social relationships, and so, have often been considered as anatomical objects rather than the remains of people-now-dead. In other words, their anonymity appears to protect both the corpses …