By Fr. William Cassis
Recently, a local museum in Cincinnati, Ohio, hosted an exhibition entitled "BODIES". This exhibit raised numerous questions and concerns about the Church's position concerning the display of the dead.
Each year at the beginning of Great Lent we celebrate the "Restoration of the Icons". We acknowledge the role of icons in the theology and piety of the Church. We also recognize that all peoples, we included, are the living icons of God. We have been created in His image and likeness. Each of us carries the imprint of God within ourselves. In fact we may very well state that the first iconographer was God Himself.
With this in mind I would like to share the following thoughts about the museum exhibit titled "BODIES".
First, let me say that we cannot doubt that his exhibit has some educational, informational value. It can be helpful as a learning tool and as a means by which greater information and knowledge can be disseminated.
However, our perspective on this very public display of the dead must always be shaped by this fundamental truth—we are God's living icon. As such we must demonstrate great regard for the physical body, both in life and death.
I have three major concerns about this type of exhibition.
First is that allegations have been made about the circumstances in which these bodies were obtained. They were acquired from countries that may not place the same value on life that we do. A number of respected media outlets have raised this issue and it presents a major worry. Were they executed? Were they subject to random, irresponsible experimentation? We cannot doubt that this exhibit has some educational, informational value. Were they ill-gotten? Did money change hands? These and other questions have not been answered well. If the answers to these questions are yes then they would violate Orthodoxy's strong stand against capital punishment and our theology of life that prevents random or reckless experimentation on the human body. These unsettling questions certainly reflect a greater disrespect for the value of life.
One Rabbi has said that this exhibit appears to be Death as entertainment. This is my second concern. We have seen what that attitude does to a society. The Gladiatorial games of ancient Rome and the very public and visible presence of the guillotine in France after their revolution are only a couple of examples of this. It only highlights a certain inhumanity and disregard of one for another. Death is the result of our fall from grace and the most obvious and unsettling reality that we live in a broken world. Death is not something to entertain us or to be gawked at.
Thirdly, it seems to me that this sort of exhibit violates our basic understanding of how the dead ought to be treated. No matter the circumstances of the life and death of an individual, every human should be given a proper funeral and burial. As Orthodox we would expect a funeral service and burial be conducted. In the case of other peoples we would hold that the dead would receive rites in keeping with local traditions and mores. In death we Orthodox treat the body with reverence and regard and not just something to be disposed, disregarded or abused.
Also, the preparation of these bodies involves plasticization of the human body. Plastic, as one commentator has noted, is the excrement of the 20th century. Plastics have their place in modern life and have made our daily living better. However, turning the human body, God's creation, into a plasticized mummy is the misuse of this technology.
As Christians we have a responsibility to teach a proper affection for the body, a respect for life, and care for the dead. Augustine has left a sad legacy for western man. That legacy is a disregard and careless dislike for the physical body. He saw it as a prison in which the soul was held captivate and he wished to escape it. In some ways he saw the body in a very negative light. As Orthodox Christians we honor man as being the perfect mixture of body and soul. We are created in a duality by God. Moreover, both the body and the soul participate in the life of grace. This is the underlying notion in our treatment of the body when death comes. The physical has participated in grace just as the soul has and therefore must be treated with love, respect and honor.
We do not reject this type of exhibit out of hand, but we are called to examine and scrutinize it not only with reason and logic, but also through the eyes of faith and belief. I am convinced that the eyes of faith possess greater vision when it comes to the things of God and His creation ?