The Dead on Display: A Call for the International Regulation of Plastination Exhibits

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Historically, the deceased and their relatives have been understood to have certain rights and legal protections. The right of conscience and the right of sepulchre, or the right of the next of kin to properly dispose of his or her relative, have allowed for individuals to determine how their bodies will be treated in death and for families to mourn in accordance with their beliefs. It has long been understood that the bodies of the dead possess only certain qualities of property, which has limited how cadavers can be used. Recently, popular plastination exhibits, such as “BODIES . . . The Exhibition” and “Body Worlds,” have challenged these traditional norms, putting the bodies of the deceased on display for profit. In this way, the dead are commodified instead of treated with respect. Further, the fact that several of the exhibits use unclaimed bodies from China suggests that neither the deceased nor their relatives were given the opportunity to exercise their rights. In response to the questionable practices of these exhibits, several countries have taken either judicial or legislative action to address the use of the dead for profit. As this Note argues, however, these measures represent an insufficient resolution to the problems presented by plastination exhibits, since these exhibits operate worldwide. Moreover, while there are already long-recognized domestic and international laws and norms that protect the rights of the deceased and their kin, the anonymity of many of the bodies used by plastination exhibits may prevent their enforcement. This Note therefore calls for a new international legal regime to ensure that these laws and norms do not continue to go ignored.