Autopsy TV

It was reality TV with a macabre twist. Viewers watched as a camera closed in on a naked human corpse, laid out in a Nashville autopsy room. Then, close-ups of the man's face, badly damaged when a car struck him down, and tattoos on his back and shoulder. The program was an episode of True Stories from the Morgue, carried on The Learning Channel, and its popularity exposes how America is showing less and less respect for the human body and human remains. And it's not just one show. The Learning Channel also aired a show called Miami Morgue last year, and on HBO, viewers can watch a documentary series called Autopsy -- cutting open cadavers. Joshua Partlow and Michael Amon noted in the Washington Post, "fictional [but graphic] programs about forensics, such as Crossing Jordan and CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, also have found large audiences." In fact, last November, CSI became the top-rated prime-time television show, with 18 million viewers. What's behind the popularity of programs that star, not beautiful, living actors, but broken human corpses? Robert Thompson, director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University, says part of the appeal is "the sheer morbid fascination of seeing dead bodies." That, combined with the "great detective tool" forensic science has become, results in what Thompson calls "pretty good drama." Family members of the dead who are featured in these programs have another term for it: moral obscenity. For example, the parents of the dead Nashville man were horrified to see their son's remains turned into a source of entertainment for the masses. As his mother, Cheryl Reidy, put it, "They violated us. They violated our right to grieve. There should be no filming of a deceased body in the morgue for entertainment purposes." Right. The Reidy family is suing both The Learning Channel and the Nashville medical examiners who allowed the production company to film their son's remains. Two other families -- victimized in the same way -- are also suing The Learning Channel. Part of the complaint is that The Learning Channel didn't obtain permission from families before putting the remains of loved relatives on television. But even when permission is granted, is it right to encourage such voyeurism? What happened to respect for the dead? Scripture teaches that our bodies are of great value, and a high view of the human body came largely from the New Testament teaching of the Incarnation. In the ancient world, it was considered too degrading to think a god would take on human form. The Incarnation was a radical idea that led, in the Christian tradition, to a great respect for the human body as such. As the influence of Christianity declines, one of the cultural effects is a diminished respect for the human body. So television networks push the envelope further and further, showing the remains of crime victims, not only on autopsy tables, but also at crime scenes -- often naked, abused, and degraded by the forces of nature. Christians need to understand and explain to others that our bodies are not cages for our true selves, but are the way God made us. And respect for the human body -- alive or dead -- shows respect for our Maker. For further reading and information: Nancy Stetson, "Morbid fascination?Naples Daily News, 2 July 2004. Sheila Burke, "Autopsies on television leave families horrified," Tennessean, 15 June 2004. Robert A. Burt, "Reality TV: from public autopsies to what?Commonweal, 31 January 2003. Learn more about the Center for the Study of Popular Television. BreakPoint Commentary No. 020517, "Cadaver Art: Moral 'Freak Shows'?" (Archived commentary; free registration required.) Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death (Viking Press, 1986).


Chuck Colson


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