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German Accused of Using Bodies of Executed in Exhibits

DW staff (win)
January 17, 2004

A professor who preserves human bodies for display in exhibitions allegedly used remains of people executed in China. The controversial artist has so far claimed that he only works with bodies of voluntary donors.

Hagens, left, with one of his modelsImage: AP

Gunther von Hagens, who has drawn millions to his "Body Worlds" exhibitions across Europe and Asia, has said in the past that he has received 250 “body donations” from people who willingly agreed to have their corpses exhibited after their deaths.

“All anatomical specimen on display in the Body Worlds exhibition…belonged to persons who declared during their lifetime that their bodies should be made available after their deaths for the qualification of physicians and the instruction of laypersons,” a statement on Hagens’ Web site reads.

Körperwelten von Gunther von Hagens
Hagens displays the bodies in different poses, such as playing chess.Image: AP

According to German newsmagazine Der Spiegel, a newly discovered inventory list of Hagens’ company, Von Hagens Plastination Ltd., includes 647 „whole bodies" that are awaiting preparation for exhibitions and the sale to universities in the northeastern Chinese town of Dalian. Among them are the bodies of a young man and a young woman, who were apparently executed and have bullet holes in their skulls, the magazine reported.

Detailed response to come next week

Hagens acknowledged that company employees had accepted the bodies in 2001, but added that he had been “shocked” by the move and had fired those responsible.

A “Body Worlds” spokeswoman told the Associated Press news service that the exhibition’s creator would comment further on the matter next week, adding that earlier accusations of misuse of bodies had proved unsustainable.

In March 2001, Hagens had been accused of using a body from a Russian prison camp, but he denied the allegation, saying the corpse came from a German man.

Gloria von Thurn und Taxis
Gloria von Thurn und Taxis.Image: AP

Acording to Der Spiegel, Hagens and his wife have tried to solicit body donations in the past. In 1990, they allegedly offered flamboyant Bavarian Princess Gloria von Thurn und Taxis (photo) to preserve her recently deceased husband’s body, saying that this was the only way that “suited his personality.”

Odorless corpses

Reiter mit Pferd Ausstellung Körperwelten
Rider on a horse.Image: presse

The anatomy and pathology professor developed a special technique to preserve human and animal bodies for his exhibitions, which have been shown in most major German cities as well as in London, Vienna, Brussels, Basle, Korea and Japan. During the so-called “plastination” process, bodily fluids and fat are replaced with plastic, resulting in durable and odourless exhibits.

In 2002, Hagens made headlines when he defied British authorities and performed a public autopsy in London.