- PLASTINATION Method
- Plastination Film
- Plastination Step by Step
- Questions & Answers
THE METHOD OF PLASTINATION
Plastination is used to preserve anatomical preparations in an aesthetic and permanent way. The body cells and the natural surface relief remain in their original form and remain identical to their condition before preservation, down to the microscopic level. The preparations are dry , odorless and understandable in the truest sense of the word. These properties make plastinated preparations of inestimable value for the training of prospective doctors, and for the medical education of interested laypeople.
Doctor and anatomist Dr. Gunther von Hagens invented the plastination process in 1977 at the Anatomical Institute of the University of Heidelberg and has continued to develop it ever since.
Put simply, plastination is a vacuum process in which body fluids are replaced with plastics. However, this exchange process cannot be carried out directly because the bodily fluids do not mix with plastics. Dr. von Hagens therefore invented a detour: the body water (which makes up around 70% of the human body) and the tissue fats are first replaced with acetone, a solvent that evaporates easily. In a second step, the acetone is then exchanged with a plastic solution in a vacuum.
This crucial step, with which the liquid plastic reaches every cell of the specimen, is the so-called forced “vacuum impregnation”. The vacuum sucks the acetone out of the specimen and creates negative pressure in the specimen that allows the plastic to penetrate the tissue. Gradually, the preparation fills up with plastic. Thin slices of the body only need a few days for full impregnation, while whole prepared bodies take several weeks. The preparation is only removed from the plastic bath to be positioned and hardened when the vacuum has fallen below one-hundredth of the normal air pressure (<5 mm Hg) and when only a minimum of acetone bubbles are still struggling to be released.
Plastination Step by Step
Before a body can be subjected to plastination, the decomposition must first be stopped. To do this, a formalin solution is introduced into the body’s arterial system. After about 3 to 4 hours, the entire arterial system of the body is filled with formalin. It kills all bacteria and changes the protein structures of the tissue. The body no longer decomposes and the anatomical preparation, i.e. the exposure of anatomical structures such as organs, muscles, tendons and nerves, can begin.
First, the skin and subcutaneous fatty tissue are removed. The organs, muscles and tendons, as well as the nerves and vessels of the body are surrounded by a thin layer of fibrous connective tissue. This connective tissue is gently removed with a scalpel and tweezers so that the individual anatomical structures finally come to light.
In addition to good anatomical knowledge and manual skills, the preparation also requires a lot of patience. A whole body takes up to 800 hours of work.
DRAINAGE AND DEGREASING
After the preparation, the actual plastination process begins.
In a first step, the water and soluble fat in the body are replaced with a solvent. For this purpose, the prepared body is placed in an acetone bath at -25 degrees. Even at these temperatures, acetone is still liquid and gradually mixes with body water. As a result, the acetone becomes more and more watery and must be replaced several times with a fresh acetone bath. The water concentration of the acetone bath is continuously measured in the laboratory. If no more water can be detected in the last acetone bath, the body has been deprived of all water. The acetone is then brought to room temperature to remove the soluble fats from the tissue. Depending on the size of the preparation, the process of dehydration and degreasing takes about 3 to 4 months.
This is followed by the central step of plastination: vacuum-forced impregnation.
The acetone-soaked preparation is placed in a liquid silicone bath and placed under vacuum. The vacuum sucks the acetone out of the preparation and creates negative pressure in the tissue, which allows the silicone to penetrate down to the last cell of the preparation. The acetone that has escaped pearls to the surface of the silicone bath and is continuously sucked off. Impregnation is complete when no more acetone bubbles escape. The impregnation process takes about 6 to 8 weeks.
Positioning takes place after impregnation. The preparation is taken out of the silicone bath and drips off. In this state it is still flexible and shapeable. The body is now brought into the desired pose. In addition, all anatomical structures are correctly positioned using needles, wires, staples and other aids.
Depending on the preparation, the entire positioning process can take a few weeks or even several months.
In a final step, the preparation is hardened using a special gas. For this purpose, an airtight chamber is built around the preparation in which it is exposed to the gas. With hardening, the plastination process is complete. The preparation is now permanently protected from decomposition.
Some selected questions & answers
Decomposition begins shortly after death, even when it is not visible to the naked eye for many days. For a good result in plastination, the body should be transferred to our Institute as quickly as possible. If the transfer will be delayed for days, we recommend temporarily storing the body cold in a mortuary located near the place of death. A local funeral home may have to be commissioned for this, at a cost to the donor or their family.
In warm seasons, the transfer should take place no later than 2-3 days after death. In the colder seasons or in the case of storage in a refrigerated mortuary, it should be within 6-8 days at the latest. After that the body will be far too decomposed and would be unsuitable for plastination, in this case we would have to reject the acceptance of the deceased.
Further information and recommendations for action are summarized in the Guide for Survivors.
As soon as a body has been anatomically prepared, i.e. the skin and the forming subcutaneous fatty tissue have been removed, it appears so alienated that it is impossible even for close relatives to recognize the person.
In the BODY WORLDS exhibitions, the identity, age and cause of death of the respective person remain unmentioned, since the exhibition deals with the miracle of the human body, and not with private, personal destinies.
Not all donors will be able to be part of BODY WORLDS and it’s possible to specify that you do not want to be on public display. Preparations that are not shown in the BODY WORLDS exhibitions are used for science and for the training of doctors and others working in health professions.
Results of plastination depend on many factors that are not foreseeable at the time of death. Above all, these include age and physical condition at the time of death, any existing illnesses, the cause of death and the time that elapsed between death and arrival in our laboratories (in other words, how far the decomposition has progressed).
If you want to exclude using your body or parts of it in a public exhibition, you can specify this in your donation form. A separate field is provided for this disposition. In this case, your body will only be used for scientific purposes and for medical training in appropriate institutions.
A corpse is not just any object, but as the remains of a former human being it holds a special claim to be respected. Several features of BODY WORLDS illustrate how this claim is by no means violated:
- The bodies on display come exclusively from people who have voluntarily made their bodies available for this purpose. The exhibition honors and respects the will of the deceased, even though their decision to donate their bodies and consent to public display may not be in line with other people's values and opinions.
- The exhibits always correspond to their human nature, for example, the bodies or their individual parts would never be shown in a dehumanized form (e.g. a leg would never become a golf club and a bladder would never become a flower vase).
- The personal rights of the body donors are preserved because the exhibition does not provide any information about their identity, age or cause of death.
- Visitor behavior plays the most important role. Because respect does not exist by itself but is always expressed through respectful interaction. An exhibition shouldn't be like a fair, where people are amused, and the exhibits are mocked or exposed to ridicule. Exactly the opposite is the case with BODY WORLDS: the exhibition is designed to be noticeably calm, serious, and disciplined.
It would be difficult to understand why it should be a greater or better show of respect to abandon a dead body to the earth or the incinerator than to turn it into a plastinate and present it to an interested, lay public in an anatomy exhibition for the benefit of education.
Once my soul leaves my physical body, it is just a physical configuration of atoms, no different than a canvas or painting, and no longer housing my soul.
Medical science has given me a second life, and I want to give back some of that. I detest the idea of rotting away uselessly in the ground.
While visiting the exhibition I found myself for a while in a timeless space. As if everything stood still. All mental reservations vanished, and one studied oneself.
Mindfulness is about caring for others. What better way to care for others than allow others for better understanding human life.
Thank you for the work you do. I have had many humbling experiences in my 36+ years of life, involving near death experiences.
What better is there to do after death?” I believe this is a great way form to give back to the world in an unselfish way.
WHY DO PEOPLE CHOOSE TO DONATE BODY FOR PLASTINATION?
People have decided to donate their bodies for very different reasons. What they all have in common is that they wanted to contribute to medical education and public education. Without these selfless donations, neither our scientific work nor BODY WORLDS would be possible.
In the meantime, our body donation program includes more than 20,000 registered donors; of these we have received more than 2,700 deceased to date (Dec. 2022).
HERE ARE SOME COMMENTS FROM THE BODY DONATION FORMS:
“Once my soul leaves my physical body, it is just a physical configuration of atoms, no different than a canvas or painting, and no longer housing my soul. As a scientist, I understand the importance of discovery, investigation and understanding. As an artist, too, I also understand creativity, ingenuity, and vision. Plastination combines all of this to create works of art that also act as tools to be used to teach people about our physical bodies. It also, philosophically, helps to demonstrate the huge divide between materialism and mentalism. It shows the body as just that, it’s bare material, raw constituents with only the soul that the artist has newly given to it, not the one that was originally given to it upon its creation.”
“Medical science has given me a second life, and I want to give back some of that. I detest the idea of rotting away uselessly in the ground. No matter whether as a whole-body plastinate, or as individual pieces, once plastinated, I will still serve a purpose, namely medical research and training. At the same time, I will be given my third life, eternal life in my eyes. I will become part of medical history, if a tiny one, and that makes me proud. Serving a higher purpose, without benefit to myself, even after death, will be fulfillment of my life.”
“While visiting the exhibition I found myself for a while in a timeless space. As if everything stood still. All mental reservations vanished, and one studied oneself. I wish for others that they may experience this feeling as well.”
“My mother died a few months ago. When she was still alive, she decided to be plastinated. When the time had come, we, her loved ones, were glad that we were able to surrender her body to an aesthetically pleasing and useful use, rather than lowering it into a hole in the ground. The administrative dealings with the Institute were not complicated. We don’t miss having a gravesite, for there are many more suitable places than a graveyard, where we feel connected to her in our memories, and those places have no closing times and are not violated. For me it is clear: This is what I want for myself too.”
“I lived a very careless lifestyle, smoking cigarettes and other chemicals, drinking heavily (which I now abstain from) and IV drug use. The last, I believe if I’m not mistaken, makes me ineligible for transplantation. On future licenses I am not going to elect to be an organ donor. I thought that they may use parts in science labs and/or medical schools for research, but chop me up and split me apart so that my body could be used as a map for the “don’t-do-drugs” campaign. If my donation helps just one person to not smoke or use drugs, then my donation won’t be made in vain.”
“Thank you for the work you do. I have had many humbling experiences in my 36+ years of life, involving near death experiences. Enjoying the BODY WORLDS exhibit for the first time, I realized the awesomeness of God’s work of art, my body. It made me realize all the quick fixes I have used on symptoms have been telling my body that it is not as amazing as it is. I have been inspired to maximize its potential.”
“Mindfulness is about caring for others. What better way to care for others than allow others for better understanding human life. Through the exploration of my body, it is my wish that other people will gain understanding of how precious each breath on this planet is.”
“I am a funeral director/embalmer, I see funerals every day. I still think funerals are special and a matter of rite. But, I think my body is better off for education and fascination than cremation or 6 feet under. Move me, form me, shape me. I love the science and artistry of Plastination.”
“What better is there to do after death? I believe this is a great way form to give back to the world in an unselfish way. I’m a humanitarian at heart and this can be my last gift to the world.”
“Visiting BODY WORLDS moved me so powerfully spiritually that I decided to help provide others with the same experience I got by being drawn closer to God through a fuller worldview.”
“The incredible genius in developing this method to preserve, educate, and give brought tears to my eyes, relaxation and calm to my mind, and rekindled my appreciation for life, people, and physicians. During my visit, each individual I bumped into, due to the crowded nature of the exhibit, said ‘Excuse me.’ Rarely do we experience such sensitivity, compassion, and self-awareness anymore. To encourage this in others is the most beautiful contribution I can imagine—it is an honor to ask to participate. Thank you so much.”
“Two years ago I saw your exhibition and I still get goosebumps thinking about it! Never before had the universe of human creation presented itself to me in a more realistic manner!”
“I truly believe plastination is a gift to the world. Until now, only doctors and surgeons have been able to see the human body in all its complexity. Everybody knows that the body is a complex machine. But you can never appreciate how deeply complex it is, until you’ve seen it in the way Plastination makes possible. The average lay person can see pictures and diagrams of the body, and think they know how complex it is. But until you’ve seen a BODY WORLDS exhibit, you’ve never truly seen it.”
“‘It is not death that a man should fear but he should fear never beginning to live’—Marcus Aurelius. Having tried to live my life fully and quite thoroughly enjoying it, I wish to freely share my body in the spirit of education as well as freeing our society from ancient taboos surrounding death. Perhaps encouraging to accept death as a part of life’s journey.”
“In an age of artificial and industrial environments, modern humans become divorced from the natural world. The human body, our most immediate experience of the natural world, becomes merely another mechanism. Superstitions and dogma further encourage us in the ill-founded belief that our bodies are evil or sinful. von Hagens and his Plastination methods offer us a healthy and scientific alternative. They encourage us to celebrate the wonder of the human body. They simultaneously revere and demystify the human organism.”
“I’m a believer and convinced of a life after death. For me, death, so to speak, is only a physical/material event. That which determines our life happens in an energetic dimension that we may refer to as the spirit or soul, and it is immortal. As we know, energy cannot be destroyed but merely transformed, and this is true as well for our living energy. After long consideration I feel good about serving future generations with my body (‘hardware’) being preserved for a good cause.”
“I view the BODY WORLDS exhibitions as works of art much more than an anatomical learning exhibit. I found that there is an astonishing amount of beauty and inspiration within the exhibits. I attended BODY WORLDS hoping to find this sort of inspiration and was not disappointed. The idea of using my body as a form of enduring art is extremely powerful to me. I find burials to be a waste. I think that using a body, even after death, is efficient and important. If I had a choice as to how my plastinated body were used, it would be as a work of art in one of the exhibits, not because I want people to see my specific body, but because I want them to find the same inspiration I did.”