What it means to look at a dead body in a medical museum

19 May
Mummified male body

Mummified male body, Chimu people, Peru, c1200-1400CE. Wellcome Collection

You might not be searching for it. You could come across it in a corner or behind a panel, displayed in a cabinet or a vitrine. It’s unfamiliar but also unmistakable: the body of what was once a human being, preserved and now presented in the context of a museum of life.

A museum is of course just another sort of mausoleum: you’d hardly expect to find a living human being (other than yourself) in a museum of life. But what does it remind you of? Well, it reminds you that all human beings, you among them, are going to die. The face: its skin stretched taut, its features distorted, tells you that this was once a person as you are, but is no longer.

There are other objects in this museum that sing the same song. Behind you, in the shadows, in other rooms of the museum are things called memento mori, or vanitas. They contain the shapes of skulls and skeletons, combine images of rich life and stark reminders of death. With more finesse, they too remind you that you will die.

All these reminders, to what end? The artefacts are largely Christian, and in fact they don’t remind you that you will end, they remind you that you will continue. They tell you flesh is dust that you might clean your soul; they tell you that this life will end the better to prepare you for the next one.

And because you are who you are and live when you do, you may not be able to separate the idea of your ‘soul’ from the idea of your ‘consciousness’. What else could suffer in hell but ‘you’; what else could continue to exist, bereft of body, but your mind? This corpse too might only be evidence that corporeal existence will end, another memento mori.

But if you look closely, the dead body of your fellow human being will tell you something different. Look at his hands, and then look at your own. What would your world consist of if you had no hands with which to pick things up and look at them? The eyes, and with them sight,  are gone, and the ears may be there, but there is no hearing.

As a human being with a body, you can imagine consciousness without a body, but that consciousness itself is not possible, could not exist without a body with which to apprehend the world. And it is the persistence of a body without consciousness (a body forcibly separated from its consciousness) that reminds you how essential a body is to ‘you’.

What is still there demonstrates adequately what has departed. And this, in a roundabout way, could be what the medical museum is really trying to tell you.

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