No Cremation — But Should I Gift My Body to Science?
Several good follow up questions on your cremation article.
Niki writes in: “Hi Pastor John, I read your article — Should Christians Cremate Their Loved Ones? — with interest. My mom, a Christian, has made it known that she wants her body to be donated to research after her death since ‘she won’t need it anymore.’”
Laura in St. Paul, Minnesota: “Pastor John, thank you for your recent article on cremation versus burial and the dignity of the human body. Having trained in biology and medicine, I can attest to the necessity of having human cadavers available for training. What insights would you provide someone who is considering donating their body to science, such as an anatomy bequest program? Also, if the dignity of the human body could be a reason against donating one’s body to science, wouldn’t this also be a reason to not be an organ and tissue donor?”
That is an incredibly good question — an important question and a front-burner question — because I just did a funeral a few weeks ago for one of my favorite people in all the world, and I didn’t know at all what she had planned. The body wasn’t there, so I talked to one of her closest friends. She is in her 80s, and she said she had given it to the university. So this is relevant and close.
The reason that the intrinsic dignity of the human body rooted in creation by God and destiny for resurrection is morally significant in my article about cremation is that the choice is between burning the body and burying the body. That is the choice I was dealing with. That was the issue. And I think it is an important issue, but I don’t want to raise its importance higher than we should. Burning bodies does not have a biblical association that we want to call to mind when a loved one has died. That is one of my big concerns. And burying has healing and redemptive associations such as the sowing of a seed that will sprout and come to glorious flower at the resurrection. So, there are beautiful and negative associations that commend burying over burning.
“The aim in donating the body to medical science is precisely to honor the preciousness of the body.”
Now the question is: Does the donation of a body for use in medical research or teaching of medicine bring into play new moral factors that I didn’t deal with in that article? And the answer is yes. The first difference is that in donating one’s body to the study or the practice of medicine, the intention is not to simply burn the body to ashes as in cremation. The cremation is simply a means of disposing of a body. That is what cremation is. It disposes of a body. That is not the aim in the donation of the body.
It may be that certain parts of the body are in the end burned by the scientific community. I don’t know. I haven’t done the research, and I don’t know the answer to what happens to cadavers when their usefulness is complete. But even if they are disposed of in that way — which, I would, by the way, discourage if I were involved in that kind of work in the scientific community — the aim in giving the body is not that that happens: It is not that the body be burned. That is the first big difference.
The second difference is that the aim in donating the body to medical science is precisely to honor the preciousness of the body. Now this is the kind of irony, I know, that we all understand. Giving yourself to one seeming indignity — which I think dissection in front of a lot of people is a kind of seeming indignity — serves paradoxically to elevate the dignity of what you have just given to indignity.
Consider a couple of analogies, like the analogy of an organ donation. When you let yourself be cut open, an organ — a kidney, say — is taken out of your body. This is highly unnatural and, in some cultures and situations, would be viewed as a kind of disemboweling torture. Yuck. But your motive is to donate your kidney to your sister to save the life of her body. And that changes everything about the way you view the cutting of your own body and the gutting of an organ from your bowels.
The same thing is true of subjecting a dead body to the indignities of dissection. It is easy to imagine. That has always been viewed this way, by and large in history, that one could imagine such indignities being debased and disgusting and evil, some sinister motivation to dig up a body and carve on it. Yuck. That could be viewed that way. But when one considers that the aim is the discovery or the improvement of some healing procedure for the body or training of doctors in the healing arts for the body, then those very so-called indignities to the body take on a kind of beauty that, in fact, serves the dignity of the body.
“I would not put organ donation in the same category as body cremation.”
Here is the other analogy I was talking about. This one moves me most deeply. One could even think of the analogy of Christ’s body at this point. Surely the human body that Christ took on was not designed to be tortured and whipped and lacerated and speared and nailed to a cross like a piece of meat. But all of those indignities were embraced by Christ. He chose them. He submitted himself to them. He gave himself to them not only that our souls might be saved, but precisely so that our bodies would be raised from the dead — and all the indignities of disease and death and torture would be overcome precisely because he gave his body to them.
Here is the conclusion. I would not put donation, motivated in these ways, in the same category with cremation. Which leads me to one last pressing question, which Nikki didn’t ask, but I must: Then should all of us donate our bodies to medical science? And my short answer is: No. And here is my thinking. There are many family issues that need to be taken into account among others. For example, are there young children involved who just lost a mommy or a daddy who need to process the death of a parent differently than thinking they are being carved up at the university? A grave to visit may be very, very important.
The principle that might guide us would be this: Is there such a manifest shortage of cadavers that the promised good that comes from their use is seriously in jeopardy because of my refusal to donate? I don’t think that is the case. Here is the principle. The closer the connection between the greatness of the need in medicine and the immediacy of my decision to give or not to give, the greater the obligation to give.