What does it mean to respect a dead body? Is it respectful to leave a corpse on a mountain top, for vultures and other scavengers to eat? Is it respectful to allow the body to decompose naturally, then retrieve the bones to place in ossuaries? To fill a body with chemicals that will encourage mold and bacteria to form on the skin, yet prevent decomposition? To cremate? Bury at sea? Carve jewelry or make bowls from skullcaps? Bury in an L-shaped grave in a simple shroud, reusing the grave over and over again? Leave displayed in glass coffins for centuries? Have the body cut into bits and pieces, distributed to new houses of worship around the world? Turn into jewels, or part of a marine reef rebuilding platform? To be left on the ground, eaten by bugs, and then examined by students?
It's a list that could go on, and it could be that you find one or more practices listed as disrespectful to the dead - but they are all within the funerary practices of one or more religions/cultures in our world. And as a matter of fact, some of the more eyebrow raising methods of dealing with dead bodies belong to the Catholic Church. Part of this is simply a matter of length of existence, and part of it is a reflection of the beliefs of the religion. The bodies of those who are considered special, holy in some way, are often retained for display, or for parceling into relics to be housed at various churches and cathedrals around the world. Surely a body, slightly waxy and preserved through an abnormal adipose reaction, displayed in a glass coffin, is going to appear disrespectful to someone whose religion believes that a dead body should be wrapped in a simple shroud, buried in the ground and allowed to decay, with limited or no headstones marking the surface of the grave or who is in it (and with the grave being reused once that body as decayed to dirt).
So it was with some surprise that I read the Cincinnati Archbishop has canceled field trips to see the "Bodies ...the Exhibition" on the grounds that the exhibit fails to respect the human bodies involved in the display. The Rev. Mike Seger, with whom the Archbishop consulted in this decision, has said
we object to the misuse of the body in a way that doesn't respect what the body may have been. These are people who were once alive, had relationships, suffered, bore children.
To treat the human body - any body - like 'stuff' is morally offensive and grisly. It reminds me of a carnival show 100 years ago.
Now, as a confession, I have not seen "Bodies ...The Exhibition", but I have seen Von Hagens "Bodyworlds", and I loved every minute of the display. The bodies were fascinating, and to see inside, to see such an intimate detail and display of that which is normally hidden to all but surgeons, was an almost miraculous sight. The exhibit itself was full of quotes by famous philosophers questioning the meaning of the body and life itself (so naturally, I was charmed), and perhaps best of all? Being able to hold segments of a plastinated body, including thinly sliced plates of a torso. It was an awesome exhibit, in the true sense of the word - it created a sense of wonder, a sense of awe.
That said, "Bodies ...The Exhibition" has been under heavier criticism from the scientific and general community, for the fact that their bodies come almost exclusively from a single large hospital in China, and they are unclaimed bodies that the hospital receives compensation for releasing. Because of human rights violations in China, there is a valid fear that the bodies being released for plastination are not, in fact, unidentified bodies, but the bodies of criminals or the mentally ill who have been killed/allowed to die and then not returned to their families.
And if that were the basis for which the Archdiocese was making its recommendation from, that there were questions about the origins of the cadavers being used that could not be answered to the satisfaction of the Church, and as such they did not feel they could sanction what could in fact be an activity most of the world would condemn, I wouldn't think twice of it. But the very content of the statement that they are making can be broken down to show not only their disapproval of the exhibit, but can also be read to indicate that the way they, the Catholic Church, treats the dead, is always a way everyone would agree is respectful.
For a Church that has cathedrals built of bones, catacombs lined with monks bones and bodies, that dismembers bodies to create relics, that venerates parts of people dead for centuries, that displays dead bodies in glass coffins - this is a bold declaration to be making.