Welcome to the afterlife: the bizarre, horrifying history of dead bodies in art

Jonathan Holmes travels across Europe on the trail of a story of embalmed bodies, salami slicers and ‘resurrectionists’ at large

The Segato collection at the University of Florence includes a vast number of body parts
The Segato collection at the University of Florence includes a vast number of body parts Credit: Jonathan Holmes

On November 26 1922, after a month of meticulous clearing and preparation around what is known officially as tomb KV62, Howard Carter made a hole in the door and peered into the darkness. 

“The hot air escaping from the chamber [caused] the candle to flicker,” he recorded in his diary, “but presently, as my eyes grew accustomed to the light, details of the room within emerged slowly from the mist: strange animals, statues, and gold – everywhere the hint of gold.” 

Lord Carnarvon, who funded the excavation and had travelled to Egypt for this moment, asked if Carter could see anything. “Yes,” he replied. “Wonderful things.”

Until May, visitors to Tutankhamun: Treasures of the Golden Pharaoh can relive that moment. In the quasi-holy gloom of the Saatchi Gallery, they can see jewellery inlaid with silver and faience, highly wrought weaponry, statues and icons that are over 3,000 years old but still unmatched in their complexity and beauty. All of it was made for the dead.

“This exhibit is telling to the audience the story of the Golden Boy,” says Zahi Hawass, the world’s most famous Egyptologist. “We chose about 160 artefacts that can tell the story of the Golden Boy, about his life, his toys, his religious beliefs.” While opulent, most of the objects have a practical purpose. They were intended to assist the king on his journey through the afterlife. 

“Everything has a function,” says Hawass’s fellow scholar Chris Naughton. “The King makes a journey through the 12 hours of the night, and in each of those hours is a different episode in which the King encounters a series of ‘baddies’. He has with him, for protection, equipment of various kinds. For instance, he has two daggers on his body inside the coffin.”

A wooden guardian statue of the ka of Tutankhamun, at the Saatchi exhibition Credit: IMG

You get a sense of Tutankhamun’s personality from the objects. We know he hunted ostriches near Heliopolis from the inscription on a golden fan. We know he came for a fight, with 30 bows and hundreds of arrows, not to mention six chariots that were disassembled to fit through the tomb door. Thirty-five model boats were expected to grow to full size in the afterlife. We have the tiny armchair he used on becoming king, aged only nine.

“From the objects, you know he was a warrior,” says Hawass. “We know the furniture that he used. We know the gods that he worshipped. We know he drank beer.”

Some of the objects suggest that the burial was rushed, as though he were packing his bag with the taxi waiting outside. As Naughton explains: “There is a collection of 30 or 40 pairs of sandals, some of which are ludicrously bling, and others which are actually quite ordinary.

“Some are very small, things he would probably have had when he was a child. There is no reason for them to be in there except, we assume, that he genuinely used them in life.

“It reminds us that in the end, he was a human being like everybody else. Along with being commander of the armies, symbolically making offerings to the Gods, he was a kid who probably drove around on a chariot and he had little shoes.”

Tut is literally present inside the objects too. The dismemberment and reunification of the body is a common theme in Egyptian religion, and the pharaoh’s spirit would be reunited with his body in the afterlife. Organs like the liver were parcelled out into canopic jars, small golden coffins of their own, with spells written on the inside in gold. The outside is decorated with chevrons and peacock-feather designs – the world’s fanciest Thermos.

(“For the Egyptians, the heart was where your thoughts came from,” says Naughton. “They squished the brain to bits with a stick that went up the nose and scraped it out in a gooey substance.”)

Looking around, I’m struck not so much by the beauty of the objects, but by how completely they have supplanted the living king. The shining objects don’t just tell us about Tutankhamun – they have become him. Think of Tutankhamun, and you picture not a human face, but a golden death-mask.

 

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In a museum in Florence sits a table that is a million miles away from Tut’s treasures. It’s reasonably pretty, sure – inlaid with geometric patterns of red, brown and beige – but it’s the kind of bric-a-brac that would lose money on Bargain Hunt. Every strip is a slice of human organ or muscle or bone, hardened and varnished. 

Inspired by the mummies of Egypt, the 19th-century Italian who made it was a celebrity of his day, and although he’s now largely forgotten, his methods still baffle scientists. He was Girolamo Segato, “Il Pietrificatore”, the man who turned dead bodies to stone. 

Of course, in ancient Egypt, the main market for what we would term “art” was the dead. 

“For a pharaoh, the biggest investment that you will make in your life is preparing for the next one,” Naughton explains. “Every object in Tut’s tomb is, by far and away, the best example of its kind anywhere in the ancient world. The value of the precious materials is sensational, but the craftsmanship is incredible as well.”

 The Basilica di Santa Croce in Florence Credit: Jonathan Holmes

This link between death, art and patronage has continued ever since, hitting its peak in Renaissance Italy and the city of Florence, where it supported artists like Michelangelo. 

“If you walk into any cemetery in Florence, you’d be surprised by the amount of artists [who have designed statutes there],” explains sculptor Raffaello Romanelli. “The funerary market was really big.” (Michelangelo himself is captured in marble on top of his tomb in the Basilica di Santa Croce, looking vaguely startled, like he’s accidentally flipped his phone to selfie-mode.)

It’s still a booming business. The Romanelli family workshop was started in the 19th century by Pasquale Raffaello. Today, their gallery looks like Pompeii’s zoo: packed full of petrified horses, lions and noblemen. Clients around the world still pay to be immortalised, although a marble statue now costs €25,000 (£21,000).

In an age where science and art were evolving together, and the likes of Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo were trailblazers in the field of anatomy, the lines between cadavers and artist’s models blurred.

“Humans are really difficult,” notes Romanelli. “Someone like Michelangelo would go to a tomb and get a dead person, just to figure out what’s going on under the flesh.” The most literal practitioner of this meeting of art and bodies was Girolamo Segato. 

When I visit the top floor of the anatomy building at the back of Careggi Hospital, it’s closed to the public due to the cancer-causing formalin fumes. It used to be a nightclub for military officers. (Much of the hospital was built by PoWs.) Now it’s home to the world’s largest collection of Segato artefacts: rows of preserved arms, scalps, genitals and viscera, some looking fresh from the operating table, some seemingly turned into marble.

His masterpiece is the complete head of a young woman. Colourful and lifelike, she’s a different creature from the desiccated faces of Egypt that inspired so many horror films. Her skin is sallow and has the texture of suede, but she’s almost beautiful, in a Christopher Walken sort of way: blonde with cheekbones, lips tight over her teeth like you’ve told her a bad joke. 

The mummified head of a young woman, the centrepiece of the Segato collection Credit: Jonathan Holmes

“Segato was a funny man,” says Sandra Zecchi, professor of anatomy at the University of Florence. Born in Belluno in 1792, as a young man Segato dabbled in cartography and illustration. “He was curious, a naturalistic soul. Then, through a friend, he had a chance of participating in the Egyptian expedition of Mehmed Pasha.”

Soon after arriving, an Indiana Jones movie broke out. The story goes that Segato fell into a tomb and was trapped overnight. Suddenly corpses, blackened and perfectly preserved, erupted from the sand around him. Segato had found his calling.

“It’s the enzymes in your own body that usually break down the tissue after death,” says Daniel Antoine, curator of physical anthropology at the British Museum, which has 7,000 human remains in its climate-controlled charnel house, kept at a constant 40 per cent humidity. “You can stop that in several ways: by being at very high altitude, for instance, or somewhere with high aridity.” 

The baked bodies Segato encountered were “natural mummies” accidentally preserved by the sand, but most preservation techniques aim for the same goal: kill bacteria, remove water, live forever. Part of the genius of the mummification practised on Tutankhamun was in removing the moist organs then dehydrating the body with natron salts. (And among the evidence for Tut’s burial being rushed is that he was still wet when entombed, so isn’t as well preserved as he might have been.)

Yet the method that Segato developed on returning from Egypt, working from his office in the Palazzo Ferroni, far outstripped that of the pharaohs. According to his friend Domenico Pellegrini: “The head was submitted to the procedure, so that it could remain in the same condition as it was when Segato obtained it: fairly soft, with its natural colour, that is deadly pale. Her physiognomy was not altered at all, only the eyes were changed.

“He wanted to try, if it was possible, to remove the colour of death, while rendering it useful for science by showing the blood vessels under the skin. With this aim he worked hard for two months.”

The skulls in the Segato collection at the Careggi Hospital Credit: Jonathan Holmes

A CAT-scan of the woman’s head reveals a 2.5cm hole in the skull, and the blood vessels are perfectly preserved down to their most slender branches, meaning that the blood had yet to coagulate when injected. “The vessels were injected with fixation solution immediately,” says Zecchi.

(The potential murder mystery mirrors a similar controversy over Tut’s head. “Everyone thought the Golden Boy was murdered because there was that hole in the back of the head,” says Hawass. “I found that this hole was opened to remove the liquid for mummification.”)

Segato named his approach “petrifaction”, but he actually used different preparations to different effects. The head preserves the colour and texture of life, other specimens look like marble statues, while the table turned organs into hard veneers.

But Segato jealously guarded his secrets and even today, scientists don’t know how he did it. Valentine Mott, the father of American vascular surgery, wrote: “This extraordinary man must have inherited the magic shield of Perseus that, with the snaky tresses of the Gorgon Medusa's head, enabled him to convert everything he touched into stone.”


 

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The young woman’s head in Florence reminds me of Tut’s golden face – a simulacrum of life which has supplanted the original. Naughton tells me that Tutankhamun lived and died at a time when artists were increasingly representing humans. 

“The Egyptian artists seemed to be making more of an effort than usual to create distinctive images for the most important people. Canopic jars usually feature the heads of the Four Sons of Horus: you would expect a human head, a baboon, a falcon and a jackal. Tut’s are all human-headed.”

And yet, we can’t be sure what the king actually looked like.

“When taken at face value,” Naughton continues, “they represent him, but they seem to be very feminine. And, in fact, a lot of his burial equipment may have been made for someone else originally – nabbed in a hurry from someone else and recut.”

Looking at objects in the Tutankhamun exhibition, you come to know the king, but you won’t get more than a vague sense of his looks. The figures of Tut are remarkably consistent: slender limbs and drooping necks, with a slight belly cresting his kilt-like shendyt and the hint of what we might call man-boobs.

As I watch the installation of a necklace into its display case, I realise it was for a slender neck – Tut died when he was 18. In fact, Tut’s tomb was originally found by Hussein Abdel-Rassoul, a waterboy who discovered the steps leading down to the door. He was photographed wearing the same necklace, and from then on made his living greeting tourists at the entrance.

The Saatchi show, says Jonathan Holmes, doesn't give 'more than a vague sense of the pharaoh’s looks' Credit: IMG

Moreover, the pharaohs often used their funerary representations to airbrush their historical image, becoming slimmer, more beautiful and more god-like. The point was for the name to survive, not the fact. Tut, says Naughton, would treat the Saatchi exhibition as a huge success. Hawass remembers a woman approaching him after a lecture on a botched attempt to restore the mask with epoxy.

“I found out she had a tattoo of the Golden Mask on her thigh. She said: ‘I’m in love with Tutankhamun, and I’m very upset at what happened to my beautiful king.’”

Similarly, Segato transformed real people to match the aesthetic ideals of the Renaissance. Florence is a town where you’re as likely to end up cast in stone as rotting in the ground, and Segato’s pale and staring breasts look like studies for Michelangelo. The inlays of his table recall Emilio de Fabris’s colourful façade for the Santa Maria del Fiore. Meanwhile, in the open-air statue gallery of the Piazza della Signoria, surrounded by stone figures caught in her gaze, Medusa’s head is held aloft in a statue by Cellini. Her decapitated body lies at Perseus’s feet. 

Segato is the ultimate expression of ancient Egypt’s link between dead bodies and art. Tutankhamun’s name lives on in his glittering artefacts. Conversely, Segato gave a friend a ring decorated with his own petrified blood as a wedding gift, and produced a jeweller’s case full of gem-like slices of nervous tissue and scrotum as a potential revenue stream. Forget photoshopped magazine covers: this is objectification in the truest sense of the word.

 

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“They were the best in the world at that time,” says Naughton. “And yet we don’t know who these guys were. They did all the stuff they could, they hid it away in the tomb, and no one ever saw it again. It’s a funny thought.”

Until, in Tutankhamun’s case, the 20th century. Howard Carter’s excavation represented the first example of “popular science”. Rather than the colonial smash-and-grab raids of old, Carter revolutionised the field, applying forensic techniques now more familiar from crime scenes.

“He didn’t go scrambling through the tomb desperately looking for whatever was in there, which would have been the overwhelming temptation,” Naughton explains. “He stopped everything, put little label cards on all of the objects and got one of the top photographers from the Metropolitan Museum in New York to take photographs of everything as the process was unfolding. And it took years and years.”

The public followed the excavation as later generations would follow developments at Nasa. The Times had exclusive coverage rights. Guests at the Winter Palace Hotel would go to watch the artefacts being removed, before jazz in the ballroom. Previous world tours of the artefacts have been sell-outs – the current exhibition is the first time they have visited the UK since a phenomenon of a show in the 1970s, when crowds queued around the block at the British Museum. Appearing on Saturday Night Live at the time, Steve Martin satirised Tut-mania’s tacky commercialism in song: “King Tut, dancing by the Nile/Disco-Tut, the ladies loved his style/He gave his life for tourism…” Even the novelty single sold over a million copies.

The Saatchi Gallery clearly thinks it has a hit, garnering criticism for charging ‘Britain’s most expensive exhibition ticket’: £37.50 for an adult, £120 for a family of four at the weekend. Before arriving in London, Treasures of the Golden Pharaoh was in Paris, where it became the most popular exhibition in French history, with more than 1.4 million visitors.

“I call it Tut-Mania!” says Hawass. “A lady at the opening of the King Tut exhibit in Los Angeles was looking at the Golden Mask. And she fainted. After she was awake, they asked her what happened. She said, ‘I cannot stand looking at the most beautiful two people on earth. The Golden Boy, Tutankhamun – and Cary Grant, who was also there.’

Zahi Hawass (l) with Tutankhamun's mummy in 2005 Credit: Saedi Press/AP

And yet this global craze for Tut disguised a harsh political reality. From the moment they were brought back into the light, the bodies and treasures of Egypt’s tombs were scattered across the world: partly as scientific artefacts, partly as colonial souvenirs. In some ways, Carter was surprisingly progressive for his time. His career had previously taken a hit when he sided with local guards over French tourists in a violent incident that became known as the “Saqqara Affair”, and he excavated Tut’s tomb with the permission of the Egyptian Antiquities Service.

“Even so, in my opinion Howard Carter was a great man, a great archaeologist,” says Hawass, who converted Carter’s former lodgings into a museum. Nevertheless, he claims that Lord Carnarvon skirted the law to raid the tomb.

“When the tomb was found, Lord Carnarvon asked to take 50/50. But the law at that time was that if you discovered an intact tomb, you couldn’t take anything. Therefore, he was stealing from the tomb.”

(“I imagine it is the greatest find ever made,” wrote Lord Carnarvon in a letter. “There is enough stuff to fill the whole Egyptian section of the British Museum.”) 

Today, Egyptian mummies can be found in museums from America to Spain and Russia, and despite growing controversy, they have been slow to return home. In 2010, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York sent back 19 artefacts, including a small bronze dog, that (it established) had originated in Tut’s tomb.

“These objects were never meant to have left Egypt, and therefore should rightfully belong to the government of Egypt,” museum director Thomas Campbell said at the time. They had come into the museum’s collection through Carter’s niece. Earlier this year, on the other hand, a quartzite head of Tut was sold for more than £4.7m by Christie’s, despite Egyptian demands for its return.

 

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The contents of Egypt’s tombs were milestones in scientific progress, but they were also valuable commodities to be traded. It was not the first time that bodies, science and capitalism had crossed paths. While Segato was practising his art in Florence, Scotland’s “resurrectionists” had created a thriving industry. Walk through the graves of Greyfriars Kirk in Edinburgh and you’ll notice the “mortsafes”: heavy iron cages sunk into the plots as though the city expected a zombie uprising.

Demand for cadavers at the local university, so that medical students could learn dissection, was exploding. Officially, however, only executed prisoners and unclaimed foundlings could be used. (Even today, students in Florence are sent to America to get around local laws.) Spotting a gap in the market, so-called “resurrectionists” were entrepreneurs who broke into graves and sold the bodies round the back of the lecture theatre. The doctors knew better than to ask. 

“It was a complex economic, cultural and social background,” says Chris Henry, director of heritage at the Surgeons’ Hall Museum in Edinburgh. “People were frightened of their bodies being stolen, but surgeons and anatomists needed them for the development of empirical science.”

Although not as well-funded as the tomb raiders in Egypt, the resurrectionists were professionals in their own right.

“Resurrectionists were very skilled people. They could remove a body from a graveyard within minutes: dig it up, smash it in the right part of the coffin, get a rope around the cadaver and get the body out. It’s interesting to take the economic view of this. You could get between £7 and £10, a lot of money in those days. It depended on the size.”

SImon Pegg and Andy Serkis played Burke and Hare in the 2010 film Credit: Film Stills

Freshness was valued. Prices went down in summer. Scientific progress and the seedy commodification of bodies were inextricably linked.

Burke and Hare, history’s most famous graverobbers, never actually robbed graves. Like innovators from Henry Ford to the McDonald brothers, their central innovation was efficiency. Why dig up corpses when you can create them?

At least 16 murders followed. Usually their victims were poor loners, plied with whisky then smothered (or “burked”) and sold onto Robert Knox, a flamboyant and popular anatomy lecturer. They were worth more dead than they ever were alive. 

(The poor also supplied Segato with his material. The aforementioned head, according to Pellegrini, “belonged to a poor 25-year-old woman, who, after suffering from tuberculosis in the public hospice for six months, died after 18 days of agony.” Zecchi notes that for men like Segato, “the bodies were available.” The class symbolism was obvious even at the time. In Padua, someone scrawled on a loan shark’s mansion: “Behold a new Segato: his house is made from the petrified blood of poor people.”) 

Suspicion fell on Burke and Hare when an 18-year-old beggar James Wilson, nicknamed “Daft Jamie”, disappeared. “He was a great favourite of the students,” remembered medical student Thomas Hume, in a memoir recently acquired by Edinburgh’s Royal College of Surgeons. The horror of subsequently recognising Jamie on Knox’s table “may be more easily understood than expressed”. 

Hare turned King’s Evidence and was let off, but Burke was hanged and sentenced to the same public dissection as his victims. The event was so overattended that a riot broke out. Hume joined his fellow students and picked up a “good sized stob” (a thick stick) from a building site to battle the crowd and policemen alike. (He protested innocence over the death of a constable.) The crowds weren’t coming out of academic interest. Beyond only having one testicle, Burke was medically dull. 

Just as Egypt’s tombs were plundered for museums all over the world, everyone wanted a piece of Burke. The man who turned bodies into merchandise was himself broken down into trinkets. The Surgeon’s Hall Museum, which Knox once helped stock with specimens, has the ultimate collector’s item: a notepad with “Burke’s Skin Pocket Book” printed neatly across the front. It comes with a handy pencil.

“It was sold as a souvenir and there were more of them that we know of: the notepad, a business card and a section of his skin,” says Henry. “It was the souvenir mindset.”

This mindset has never left us. As the inevitable thousands come to see Tutankhamun’s treasures at the Saatchi Museum, they exit through the gift shop, where they’re able to buy a replica of his golden face, like a T-shirt from one of the Rolling Stones’ many farewell tours.

In May, once the show has closed, the objects will return home permanently to the Grand Egyptian Museum in Cairo, opening next year. “I think King Tut is tired now,” Hawass says. “He travelled too much. We need him to relax at home, and to stay at home, and people can come and see him at home.” 

Maybe Tut is tired, but in years to come, visitors to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York will still find the Egyptian Temple of Dendur, transported brick by brick across the Atlantic back in the 1960s. If they look closely, they’ll find Segato’s sloping signature scratched into the rock. He had a knack for defacing things.

 

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On the platform at Sloane Square Tube station, adverts for the Tutankhamun exhibition vie for attention with those for Gunther von Hagenss Body Worlds – Tut’s golden canopic jar facing off against a flayed corpse. Body World took over the space on Piccadilly Circus previously occupied by Ripley’s Believe It or Not. Far from the solemnity of the Saatchi Gallery, it’s almost as gaudy as the nearby M&Ms store.

Inside, you find real human bodies presented in von Hagens’s signature style. They’re dissected to various degrees of gruesomeness, then posed on horseback, doing gymnastics or having sex. And yet, if you’re looking for a modern version of Tut’s preparation for the afterlife, where corpses, politics and art meet, you have to go to the Body Worlds base in Germany.

A decade ago, von Hagens moved his main laboratory into an old clothes factory in Guben. The town, in former East Germany, was gutted when the country reunited, and as I get off the train, it’s deserted. The Plastinarium, as it’s named, is a grisly (well, grislier) version of Willy Wonka’s factory. I’m shown the warehouse-sized buzz saw used to slice an elephant into strips, the dining-room equivalent of Segato’s end-table. Around the back, a hammerhead shark floats in formaldehyde. Von Hagens tells me that the “ultimate goal” is a blue whale, but a big enough saw will cost “another €1.5 million” (£1.25 million).

The doctor developed his “plastination” technique in 1977, while working at the University of Heidelberg. His first piece of lab equipment was a salami slicer. He kept each stage of his high-tech process in different garages across the city, but at heart it follows the same principles as Egypt’s mummifications. In one would be the tanks of formaldehyde, to kill off bacteria and store the dissected bodies. Across town, more cadavers soaked in acetone to drive the water out of the flesh, much as the priests once used salt to dry bodies. Finally a vacuum was induced to force resin into the water’s place, like wrapping Tut in bandages to seal the body.

While intended for university demonstrations, plastination became a sensation when von Hagens started putting the bodies in lifelike poses: playing chess, jumping hurdles and so on. The first public Body Worlds show, staged in Tokyo in 1995, turned von Hagens into a modern Segato. He made a cameo in the James Bond film Casino Royale, and took to wearing a black fedora as a trademark, a reference to the lecturer in Rembrandt’s 1632 painting The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Nicolaes Tulp.

Angelica Whalley works on the 'plastination' process in Heidelberg Credit: Jonathan Holmes

It’s only up close in the Plastinarium that you can see the art, tracing the lines of the scalpel-like brush strokes. The dissections are conducted on site, with six corpses on slabs when I visit. One specialist is hunched over a ribcage, unpicking a storm of veins line by line. He tells me that, as with a sculptor and a block of marble, “the most important decision is not to cut too much, because you can’t put it back.”

I realise that this is how Tutankhamun must have looked, being broken down, his organs doled out into canopic jars. Like a deep-sea fish, the colours are moist and vivid in a way that was never meant to be seen. 

The atmosphere is professional, but we are a long way from the sanctification of the body found in ancient Egypt. It’s a dispassionate approach to the human body. As von Hagens himself tells me: “A man who repairs washing machines every day can look at a washing machine and see the inside of the washing machine.” 

The cadavers’ faces are all shrouded. Is this a mark of respect? “No, it’s to stop them drying out.”

Looking on, I discover there is a spectrum. The more broken down the body, the easier it is to stomach. Watching hairy buttocks be removed – the penis sprouting through the cavity, a mushroom in the cleft of a tree – drains the blood from my face.

There is a point somewhere in this room where people stop being people and become things. But unlike Tut in his golden finery, the bodies themselves are the treasures, and rather than locking them away in a tomb or lecture theatre, they are put on public display. The audience for this art is the living, not the dead.

“My goal hasn’t changed: to popularise and democratise anatomy,” von Hagens says. 

Unlike the anonymous poor used by Segato and Knox, almost 20,000 people, mostly from Germany, have volunteered their body for plastination. (“I consent to having my plastinated body exhibited in unusual places,” reads one example form, “e.g. on a reproduction of a ghost ship.”)

A full-body demonstration unit for universities can cost around €70,000 (£58,000), but von Hagen’s invoices specify that this is for the 1,500 working hours it took to prepare, not for the body itself. They closed down their Chinese outpost partly due to copyright issues, and partly to avoid controversy over sourcing. All of the cadavers in von Hagens’s workshop were shipped from Germany, but in April 2018 a similar show named Real Bodies faced accusations that the cadavers were former political prisoners.

Two 'plastinated' bodies in the process of being posed in Heidelberg Credit: Jonathan Holmes

Similarly, they seek to avoid any risk of a Daft Jamie-style riot where a body is recognised. Relatives do not come to the Plastinarium to leave flowers. The bodies have ID tags up until they are posed and baked into their final position, at which point it is removed and they are anonymised. A sign at the entrance to the London branch reads:

“The exhibition focuses on the nature of our physical being, not on providing personal information on private tragedies.”

Nevertheless, as with Tutankhamun’s sandals, the donors do insinuate themselves into the final objects. When I visit Angelina Whalley, director and curator of the Institute for Plastination (and von Hagens’s wife), she’s working on posing – a lengthy process that’s halfway between science and sculpture.

“Sometimes you see a monument and think it might work for a specimen,” she says, “then once you work on it you realise that an artistic point of view is different from an anatomical point of view. Michelangelo’s David is disproportionate. If you’re an artist, it doesn’t matter if one leg is longer than another.” 

The final product is limited by the body and the life it lived. One person, muscled like a Greek statue, is being turned into an Olympic speed skater. Meanwhile, in the corner, a different scene is being roughed out: one man, the skin removed, is sprawled on a pedestal, trying to stop his organs from slipping out of an open wound. Another figure, stripped to the skeleton, cradles him as he dies. It’s a soul being embraced by the reaper.

“The man who donated the body committed suicide by shooting himself in the heart. Since this is such a dramatic and sad case, it requires also a particular pose, a memento mori.” (I look, but can’t spot the bullet.)

It’s a self-consciously artistic display. Yet like Segato, the reality of the body makes it unreal. The body has been flayed, but his white moustache still hangs under his naked nose. This isn’t a private tragedy. It’s not even tragic.

“I make the deaths more emotionally acceptable, a little bit,” von Hagens says when I ask whether he is helping people deal with death. “But I’m not focused on the man’s death, I’m focused on the body.”

In 2011, von Hagens announced he had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, and it has now progressed to the point that he rarely does interviews. Words are a struggle, but he still spends his days happily testing new techniques in his private laboratory at the top of the factory. With peeling wallpaper and eerie purple lighting – several rooms are filled with varieties of cactuses he’s cultivating – it’s every bit the mad scientist’s lair. 

He shows me casts of the heart with the flesh burned away, revealing the intricate web of blood vessels in a way Segato could only imagine. It looks dandelion-fragile, until von Hagens gleefully throws the plastic against the ground.

Gunther von Hagens and Angelica Whalley at Body Worlds in London Credit: Paul Grover for the DT

“Of course,” says von Hagens, he will be plastinated when he dies. He wants to greet visitors to the Plastinarium. Yet as with all donors, the final posing will be in someone else’s hands – perhaps his wife’s. His body might not perish, but unlike Tutankhamun, von Hagens has no illusions that he will live on in his work. 

“Immortality is very human-minded – it’s a pretty restrictive view. I am a grain of sand in the desert. In terms of importance to the universe, there are probably hundreds of millions of worlds on which creatures survive. I am nothing.”

I suggest that plastination is a form of art, an expression and abstraction of life, as well as a link back to anatomical pioneers like Michelangelo and Leonardo. He ponders for a while. 

“It’s a complex question… it depends on what ‘art’ is. Do you see anatomy as art? I think I see it as a kind of craftsmanship. We are only illustrating what’s already there,” he says. “It’s beauty beneath the skin, frozen in time forever, between death and decay.”

It is a different kind of immortality than the ones gifted to Tutankhamun. There are no golden icons, and your name will be forgotten as completely as Michelangelo’s models were.

 

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Spoiler alert: death comes for everyone. Burke’s skeleton, stripped clean, is owned by the University of Edinburgh – in 2016 it was scanned and posted online as a 3D model. Today Segato’s face stares out at the Santa Croce church, as white as his specimens, with Medusa’s snakes emerging from his bald head. The inscription reads: “Here lies decayed Girolamo Segato from Belluno, who could have been petrified if his art had not died with him.” 

Lord Carnarvon died five months after the discovery of Tut’s tomb. Arthur Conan Doyle was among many high-profile figures to put the death down to a curse, and Hawass (who himself claims to have suffered from curses protecting tombs) speaks of it in terms of karmic retribution. 

Meanwhile, Tutankhamun’s mummified body is resting in Egypt, while his spirit travels the world in his objects. Like the ticking hours of the night, he has many stops to make before they are permanently reunited in Cairo. It is an old magic that has drawn generation after generation back to the shining pharoah, but Tut, Segato and the rest also speak to the modern objectification of our bodies – the abstraction of ourselves into selfies, algorithms and Snapchat filters.

And yet, even as the mummifiers, petrifiers, sculptors and resurrectionists reduce people to the purely physical, they highlight the ineffable. They remind us that if we’re lucky, we do not collapse into dust, but are preserved in golden memory by the living, burnished in the dark.