Urban Politics #296: Regulating Commercial Display of Human Remains

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UP # 296, 07-15-2011

By City Councilmember Nick Licata.

With assistance from my legislative aide Frank Video.

Urban Politics (UP) blends my insights and information on current public policy developments and personal experiences with the intent of helping citizens shape Seattle’s future.





In 2006, Premier Exhibition’s ‘Bodies: The Exhibition’ debuted in Seattle. Motorists were treated to billboards of bodies frozen in space and time, minus their skin. Those sensational billboards caught my attention, and the attention of many others I suspect. But, was it educational, as the exhibitors claimed?

Does the public learn more from posed plasticized cadavers than from illustrations or simulations? Are such cadavers without identity or are they someone’s parents and children? What some may consider a unique educational experience may be viewed by others as sensationalism at its worst, a collection of dead bodies stripped naked, carved up and placed on exhibit. I question whether these displays provide scientific insight superior to or as useful as modeling and interactive software techniques.

In looking at those naked bodies, I wondered where they came from. Who volunteers and says, ‘please display my body playing basketball or engaged in some other sporty activity?’ To learn the answer, one must look to China. Its record on human rights leaves something to be desired (a point made as often by conservatives as liberals.) And there is a connection between human rights and these bodies on display.

The same year that the Bodies Exhibit came to Seattle, the New York Times reported “a ghastly new underground mini-industry” with “little government oversight” providing human cadavers for this and similar exhibitions.  The TV investigative news program 20/20 reported that bodies were being sold to commercial exhibitioners on the black market for $300 each. An investigation by the New York State Attorney General concluded that Premiere could not independently rule out the possibility the remains of Chinese prisoners were used in the production of the displays.

In such an environment, is there more of an incentive to provide dead bodies than to provide for the living? Is there less of an incentive to notify next of kin of such deaths when those kin are likely to object to authorities’ plans for their relatives’ cadavers? Where is the oversight? What are the protocols? Who gains from the profits made – the exhibitor or the deceased’s family?


After learning how these exhibitions operate and how they may obtain the cadavers displayed, I searched for a best practice approach to ensure that Seattle contributes to the creation of some oversight in an unregulated industry so that it does not engage in dubious practices.

Other governments have taken steps to address possible abuses. In 2005, San Francisco passed an ordinance that requires valid authorization from the deceased for such events to occur in that city. If the exhibitor is legally acquiring the permission from individuals to display their bodies, then their exhibition may proceed. Since its passage, there have been no such exhibitions in San Francisco.

In 2008, New York State went even further in certification requirements, such as permission slips, cause of death, origins of cadavers & consent from the decedents. The state of Hawaii banned such exhibitions in 2009. ABC news reported that lawmakers in the island state said the possibility of profiting off executed prisoners from China would not be tolerated in a state where many residents come from Asian backgrounds.


After hearing from constituents and discussing the matter with my colleagues, I introduced a bill making it unlawful to publically display in Seattle human remains for commercial purposes without valid authorization from the deceased. My bill, co-sponsored by Councilmembers Burgess, Godden and Harrell, would not ban these exhibits if valid documentation is presented.

Yesterday, Councilmembers Clark, Harrell, Rasmussen and I discussed my bill during a meeting of the Housing, Health, Human Services and Culture Committee, which I chair. The legislation is modeled on San Francisco’s law. Among those at the table to discuss the bill was Ron Chew, former director of the Wing Luke Asian Art Museum and a scholar-in-residence at the University of Washington. Mr. Chew was joined by Bettie Luke, Administrative Director of the Organization of Chinese Americans of Greater Seattle.

At the conclusion of our discussion, the legislation was approved unanimously. It now goes before the full Council on Monday, July 19th, for a final vote.

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