Posted by: Ken Brown | September 13, 2008

Life and Death

Timothy Mills, a secular humanist, just posted an article of his on donating one’s body to science, which is worth reading:

People’s fear in contemplating such donations is immediate and profound. The fear of death cannot be set aside with a quick dose of reason; the prospect of having their body (or the body of a loved one) treated other than how they wish after death can cause true emotional distress. I would be a poor humanist indeed if I were to ignore such pain just because it isn’t rational.

Nevertheless… [t]he gift of one’s body suits every bit of humanist philosophy: care for others, value for education, and a dedication to reality over superstition and wishful thinking. I can think of few better epitaphs than on the marker of the plot used to inter the remains from the anatomy lab I visited: “To those far-sighted people who have contributed to the advancement of medical science & research.”

Though I am a Christian, I find this perspective very interesting. After all, even if we are to be physically resurrected, it wont depend on reanimating “the same molecules” that composed us previously. Regardless of interment method, those will have long since dispersed. Our identities are not defined or limited by the molecules that make up our bodies (which are constantly replaced even while alive). Indeed, for a Christian to think otherwise is to accept the very physical reductionism that leads many to reject resurrection not just as unlikely, but absurd.

That doesn’t mean, however, that we should be flippant with the body as though it were unimportant (nor does Timothy imply that we should). To treat it as a mere shell that may be discarded at will is a profoundly un-Christian view, though far too common among Christians. The body is sacred because the world is sacred. Flawed and broken though it is, the world is the “good” creation of God and is neither to be exploited nor rejected. It is not our duty to seek escape from world but to play a role in renewing and remaking it. The body is, after all, called “a temple of the holy spirit,” a locus of God’s presence on earth. And if giving one’s body to science might perhaps advance the goal of remaking the world (though certainly in a way St. Paul never anticipated), it is worth considering.

But there is another question to consider. This month’s issue of Touchstone just so happened to include its own series of articles on Christian burial. Though agreeing that burial is not a prerequisite for the Christian hope of resurrection, they do note the importance of having physical and respectful reminders of the dead. We live in an age with a profoundly unbalanced view of death. Though our entertainment is full of violence and death, we work harder to hide from its reality than probably any previous culture. We spend billions on cosmetic products and surgeries intended to keep us looking young. We hope for scientific breakthroughs and medical treatments to extend our lives ever longer (even while we grow steadily more comfortable with abortion and euthanasia, so long as they are done privately and out of sight). Meanwhile our elderly are shuffled off to nicely manicured rest-homes, until they are finally removed to nicely manicured graveyards in which we spend little time. Even our churches are no longer built with cemeteries nor other reminders of the dead.

Perhaps it ought not to surprise then, that when we are faced with the reality of death—when a hurricane strikes, a suicide bomber attacks or a loved one falls ill—we are shocked, as though we had forgotten the most undeniable fact of our existence: Everybody dies. However we might try to deny or delay it, death is inevitable. Science and medicine, diplomacy and law, these may hold death off for a time, but none of them can offer ultimate freedom from it. Young or old, suddenly or with ample warning, we will all die, and we must ask whether our treatment of the dead recognizes this fact or blinds us to it.

What this means for a Christian’s consideration of donating their body to science (or even just cremation), I’m not certain. On the one hand, doing so risks becoming another symbolic denial of death, another means of hiding its horror and perpetuating the myth that science can save us—or at least our successors—from the inevitable. But on the other hand, symbolism is not the only important matter. Burial is, without a doubt, expensive and impractical, and in many circumstances these latter concerns are significant. Moreover, though neither science nor medicine can support the ultimate hope many place in them, they are noble and important pursuits worthy of support. If through one’s death it might be possible to save lives, that is not a possibility to be rejected lightly.

No matter what we decide, however, it is a valuable exercise to stop and consider the issue from time to time, and to reflect on the meaning of our choices. We must ask ourselves whether, in our treatment of the dead and our own plans for the future, we are unwittingly supporting our culture’s denial of reality, or reminding of both the essential goodness of this world and its inevitable dissolution.

Which reminds me: I really need to make a will.


  1. Very interesting post. Your comments about our society being in denial about the reality of death reminds me of a chat Tim & I had a few years ago. I had watched the film Braveheart (very violent btw). In it there is a moving scene where the bodies of the main character's father and brother are brought back from battle. One of the local women washes them and prepares them for burial.

    This scene just got me to thinking about how waaaaay back when undertakers simply did not exist and the job of preparing a body for burial was left to the family and friends of the deceased.

    Ick factor aside, I wonder how going from having to look after our dying and dead kin ourselves to now being almost totally removed from those tasks has changed us.

  2. Thanks for the insight into a Christian perspective on death, Ken. I’m thrilled that you enjoyed my article.

    You are right – we have an unhealthy aversion to thinking about death in our society.

    My own perspective on death and its rituals is (naturally) shaped by my family’s practices. There have been four deaths in my close family since I was old enough remember: two grandparents, a great-aunt, and a young cousin. After my granddad died, I remember being told that his corneas had saved someone’s vision. My cousin died of a rare brain disorder. His parents donated his brain for further research into the disease. So there has never been any question in my mind that donating organs is both normal and good.

    For all four funerals, the remains were cremated and the ashes spread on a tiny grass-topped hill on the Alberta prairie, a 5-minute walk from the house where I grew up. That hill, with its windswept brown grass and a handful of trees we have planted, is a sort of family memorial. It has a great power to evoke the memories of those who have died. It also reminds me of my own eventual death: I hope to have my ashes spread there, after my remains have served whatever use they can.

    The hill is like a cemetery, perhaps, but one that will never “fill up” as graveyards do. And it is visible from the farmyard – not obtrusive, but never too far from thought when I am visiting my parents.

  3. Deena,
    Ick factor aside, I wonder how going from having to look after our dying and dead kin ourselves to now being almost totally removed from those tasks has changed us.

    I’ve wondered the same thing, though I’m not sure of the answer. I certainly know that, for all the violence I see in film, I truly don’t think about death very often. I wonder if that hasn’t been true of young people forever though? Thanks for commenting!

    Yes, your article was very good; I’m glad you posted it! The idea about spreading ashes somewhere within sight is a great one, especially if (unlike me, I’m afraid) you have lived and expect to continue living in the same place.

    BTW, I should say that I am signed up to be an organ donor (though I did that pretty unthinkingly when I first got my driver’s license), and my mom used to talk of donating her body to science, though I don’t know if she has actually made arrangements for it–I’ll have to ask her. Anyway, I hadn’t much thought about it in a long time, so thank you (and Touchstone) for reminding me of the issue!

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