Various body exhibitions began in the mid-1990s, made possible by a process called “plastination,” developed by Gunther von Hagens, a German anatomist, that promised intensely detailed and color-coded looks at human insides. They have been controversial from the beginning.
A lot of the scrutiny has involved concerns that the bodies — most of which were created by a university in Dalian, China — came from executed political prisoners and dissenters, which the university denies.
Attempts to block the show have succeeded in a few places.
In 2010, the French Supreme Court declared the commercial exhibition of human remains illegal, effectively closing down all such exhibits. Two years later, the Israeli Supreme Court issued a similar ruling. Hawaii banned the shows, as did city councils in Seattle and elsewhere.
New York forced an exhibitor in 2008 to place a sign at the front of its show admitting that it could not prove the provenance of its bodies, and demanded that all future shows arrive with complete documentation of the bodies.
Usually, the protests peter out, or move too slowly to shutter a temporary exhibition before its scheduled closing.
Mr. Cizinsky, the mayor in Prague 7, said his crusade had been spurred by complaints from citizens, including a man named Jiri Benda, a medical company representative.
“This should not be done with dead bodies,” Mr. Benda said, drawing on a Christian faith that he said demands respect for people “from unborn babies to dead bodies.”
The last time one of these exhibitions came to Prague, a few years ago, Mr. Benda seethed from afar as protests failed to close it down. This time, he was determined to do more.
So he researched the country’s law governing funerals.
The law dictates that all dead bodies that turn up in a city — whether floating in a river or destitute in the streets — be buried with all necessary speed, Mr. Benda said, and that they cannot be displayed without the prior written permission of the deceased.
Mr. Benda was unswayed by the exhibitor’s contention that the bodies were so transformed by the plastination process, which replaces body fluids with hardening silicone, that they have become “exhibit artifacts,” the term used in customs documents that allowed them into the European Union.
Soon after the exhibition opened in late February, Mr. Benda wrote to the town hall in Prague 1, the central district, and was puzzled by the lack of a swift response. He contacted the police and found sympathy, but no action.
Finally, someone clued him in that, in Prague, each district has its own mayor and that the jurisdiction for the exhibition space was Prague 7.
Enter Mayor Cizinsky, who was already ill disposed to the exhibit, which he found distasteful.
“And then this letter arrived asking whether the exhibit was breaking the law on funerals,” he said. “This was a new approach to me.”
An aide wrote to the Ministry of Regional Development’s Department on Funerals to seek guidance. The May 16 reply from Tomas Kotrly, head of the funeral department, surprised the mayor.
Yes, Mr. Kotrly wrote, there is “no doubt those are balmed and unburied human remains” covered by the law, but he noted that there were no specified penalties for violators and that no criminal charges were possible.
However, he added, the law clearly stipulates that any bodies that cannot be identified must be buried “without unnecessary delays” and that it is the duty of the mayor to get it done.
“I didn’t know anything about that,” the mayor said. “I was left with two choices: Do nothing, or proceed according to the letter.”
He decided to proceed.
First, he wrote to the Chinese Embassy. The embassy responded that China’s government had no connection to the exhibits.
So, Mr. Cizinsky asked the police for help claiming the bodies. The police were sympathetic, he said, and mulled it over for a couple of weeks, but finally on Thursday declined to take on the job, saying their reading of the law differed.
Mr. Cizinsky said he would ask the courts to order the police to help him. He needs them, he said, certainly if he hopes to finish by the time the exhibition closes on July 23. But even if, in the end, he can’t claim these bodies, that won’t end the matter, he said.
“I will go the courts and try to get a ruling, at least, that this cannot happen again,” he said.
In the meantime, of course, the JVS Group, which is holding the exhibition, has hired its own lawyers and is preparing to fight any attempt to seize the bodies. But it has not exactly tried to sweep the controversy under the rug.
“At first, we were surprised,” Ms. Havelkova said. “Now, we are happy about it. It really is great advertising for us.”
More than 100,000 people have visited the exhibition — 40,000 of them students.
On a recent day, Ms. Havelkova glided past throngs of students at the exhibition grounds, stopping to point out the educational and public health aspects.
See how so many students are being taught anatomy using our exhibition? she asked. And exhibits like the one comparing a diseased lung with a healthy one are sure to dissuade smoking, she said.
“We legally rented this exhibit,” Ms. Havelkova said. “It was created at a university in China with all the necessary paperwork, but we have no business relationship to the Chinese university.”
For now, JVS is hoping to ride out the controversy, Ms. Havelkova said, but it has not been easy. “It is very difficult to read some articles claiming we are just a bunch of bloodthirsty creeps,” she said.
Mr. Cizinsky said that if — somehow — he prevailed and was able to entomb the bodies, he would do so quietly and with dignity. And he doesn’t plan to reveal where the bodies would rest.
“I don’t want people to go there and steal them,” he said.
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