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Book: Religion, Death and the Senses

Chapter: 13. Displaying the Dead with Decency: Practices at Funeral Homes and at Body Worlds

DOI: 10.1558/equinox.43887


In this chapter I will critically explore the sense of decency in relation to death, specifically in relation to the display of plastinated human remains. Case studies utilising my perspective as a Funeral Director will provide experiential accounts which evidence the sense of decency in relation to death in practice and will be combined with related academic theory to facilitate the positioning of plastination in its historical context. Walter’s (2004) argument that plastination as a method of final disposal is accepted, but not in all forms of display, will be developed through critical exploration of the relationship between nudity and decency, and the importance of skin, when considering this association. The plastinates displayed performing a sexual act in the Berlin Body Worlds exhibition and the reclining pregnant woman in the London Body Worlds exhibition will be exemplified to inform this exploration. My experience in preparing bodies for display in the Funeral Home will inform the interpretation of my visit to the Amsterdam Body Worlds exhibition which will also be considered to develop this argument. Additionally, various religious and cultural practices of covering the deceased’s modesty will help contextualise the different interpretations of the sense of decency in death. Hertz’s (2004) theory that the human corpse has a wet and dry phase will be used to distinguish the key differences between plastinated specimens, bog bodies and bones for display. The elaboration of this theory will explicate how religious and cultural practices influence perceptions and in turn, affect the way human remains are displayed with perceived decency in different parts of the world. I will also argue that the plastination process transforms a corpse from a subject to an object and that plastinated specimens are in an eternal state of meta-liminality, a concept which draws on Turner’s (2011) development of van Gennep’s (1960) idea of liminality. By combining this development of theories with my professional experiential accounts, this chapter will provide a unique practitioners’ perspective of the sense of decency in relation to death and the necessary context required to understand the circumstances in which the display of plastinated human remains would be deemed decent.

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