By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
“This is Matt Szpak. He’s 13. He was hit by a car two and a half months ago,” said McCall, explaining that he had a brand-new bike helmet but didn’t want to wear it because “he didn’t want to mess up his hair.”
McCall broke into tears, grasping the shoulders of a shorter, expressionless woman beside her whose shirt said, “Mother.”
“This is the boy’s mother, Dena,” said McCall, “my best friend. She’s been diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer. We want her to be alive when Matt wakes up, but the family’s insurance is running out, and Matt’s father has lost his job. I’m hoping Paris Hilton can be our champion.”
“What makes you think Paris will help you?” a reporter asked.
“Because she had a tough time with the tapes and everything. And I talked to Paris inside, and she seemed interested.”
“What did she say?”
“She said my shirt was very nice,” said McCall.
Last Tuesday afternoon, Dr. Gunther von Hagens and his wife, Dr. Angelina Whalley, were in Los Angeles looking for a few good bodies. It was the first-ever American Body Donation meeting, hosted at the California Science Center on behalf of the Institute for Plastination in Heidelberg. Our museum’s generosity to the German institute was partly in support of the current globetrotting exhibit “Body Worlds,” whose most macabre and compelling aspect is that it consists of the remains of actual human beings (plus one duck). Under the skin of the bodies, you can observe skeletons and internal organs and digestive systems and tracts, either under glass or strung up and suspended in poses on wires and hooks. They are preserved through plastination, a process developed by von Hagens.
The procedure is too complicated to describe in detail (check out the 27-page downloadable brochure at www.bodyworlds.com/en/pages/koerperspende.asp), but, in brief, your corpse is shipped to a big lab in China where a fluid resin is infused into your tissues while your own liquids and fats are vacuumed out of your body. Once the resin hardens into an odorless, see-through plastic, you can be displayed with muscles flayed from your bones, or even with your midsection cut horizontally into transparent pizzas, like the slices of redwood-tree trunks you see in Armstrong Woods. The best part is, whatever’s left of you will be around longer than an Egyptian mummy.
Before the meeting, as I perused the exhibit, I couldn’t help but notice a striking, self-assured brunette woman in a salmon-orange chiffon dress prance into the gallery. A museum rep attempted to introduce me, but the effort was cut short by the woman herself, who offered me her hand and spoke brusquely through a German accent: “Doctor Angelina Whalley, director of the Institute for Plastination.”
“Hi,” I said, and immediately asked her irrelevant, personal questions about her marriage to Herr Professor Doktor Gunther von Hagens. Unflustered, she said she met him while studying anatomy at the University of Heidelberg, where he was teaching. Though it was none of my business, I was happy to learn that after living together for several years, they married in 1992, in the United States, and that he has three children by a former marriage.
“So,” I said, “if I want to donate my body to your institute, what do I do?”
Not surprisingly, she said I’d have to fill out a form, which includes preference options (i.e., do I wish my innards to be displayed in whole or in part?), a confidentiality option, an out-clause option, and a box acknowledging that I’m aware my specimen may be sold — but only to a medical institution, never to an individual, and only to recoup the cost of plastination.
“So, if I’m walking in L.A. and I’m hit and killed by a slow-moving bus, how do you get me to China?” I asked.
Family cooperation is terribly important, Dr. Whalley replied. But it’s crucial, she emphasized, to get the body to a local embalmer who’s pre-approved by the institute.
As she detached a wisp of chiffon from her kneecap, Dr. Whalley explained with a kind of erotic, Teutonic smile, “Embalming is the injection of formaldehyde into the tissues to stop any further putrefaction of the cadaver.”
After my brief flurry of arousal subsided, I asked her why the big lab is in China. She explained that I might wind up in Kyrgyzstan, where the institute has a smaller lab. She launched into a torrid tutorial on China and Eastern Europe’s growing interest in gross anatomy, and of plastination’s grueling labor-intensive requirements — an explanation I loosely translated as outsourcing.
A few minutes later, I was introduced to
26-year-old body donor Bruce French and his childhood friend Molly. Bruce is from Orange County and said that he was thinking of donating his body to UCI’s Willed Body Program, but after reviewing the Institute for Plastination’s literature, he signed on with von Hagens and Whalley instead. “I just thought it was kind of fascinating and important that my body go somewhere,” he explained.
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