Ask Richard: Mother Objects to Donating My Body to Science

Hi Richard,

I have recently organized for my body to be donated to science when I die. It will go to the nearest University for use by trainee doctors. I feel that my body would be better off used for the benefit of other people rather than just buried and wasted.

The problem I have is that my parents, particularly my mother isn’t happy with this and is having trouble accepting my wishes. My father is an atheist but my mother likes to conform to the Anglican way of doing things. How can I make her understand my humanist point of view?

Thanks,

Dan

Dear Dan,

I commend you for a level of generosity that will reach beyond your lifespan. To give so freely to strangers a gift so intimate, to give literally of yourself is deeply inspiring and praiseworthy. I hope that everyone reading your letter makes the same arrangements, as I did long ago. My spare parts are pretty shopworn, but if what’s left can help medical students learn to help the living, hey that’s fine with me.

First, let’s dispel any notion that the Anglican Church has any objections to donating one’s body to science. If that is all the problem is for your mother, this will be fairly easy to resolve, but I think that this may not be what is really troubling her.

I searched several sources about the funerary customs of the Anglican and Episcopal churches, and I found this from a handbook about funerals (PDF) at the Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd in Buffalo, NY:

DISPOSITION OF THE BODY
There are three basic options for the disposition of the body, all fully acceptable in the tradition of the Episcopal Church:
1. Donation of the body to science and/or parts of the body for transplant.
2. Burial or entombment of the body.
3. Cremation, with several options for the disposition of ashes.

I also found these passages in a pamphlet about funerary customs published by the Anglican Diocese of Fredericton, New Brunswick, Canada (emphasis mine):

The chief emphasis of Christian Burial should be not upon death but on Life Eternal…

…In the making of Funeral arrangements, we are reminded as Christians of the simplicity of our Lord’s own burial… Any undue concern about the body is a worldly and pagan emphasis, not a Christian one.

So as far as I can tell, the Anglican Church has no official opposition to you giving your body as a gift to help the rest of us. You might want to speak with someone in the Church who has specific knowledge and authority, just to be sure.

But perhaps your mother’s unhappiness over this is not about religion, but a very basic human characteristic, her attachment to you.

She bore you, your body came from her body. She carried, held, protected and suckled you. More than anyone else in the world, she has an intense connection and identification with your physical body.

Talking with your mother about the disposition of your body can bring up for her or any parent a deep, instinctive aversion to even the thought of the death of their child. The fact that she is more likely to die before you does not reduce this visceral reaction against the idea that you will be no more. She wants there to be something left of you. Your body that she so lovingly grew and protected must somehow continue. The idea of your body being completely gone in any form, not even as a few bones in a grave, is too real, too stark, too final, too bereft for her.

She may have troubling thoughts about “strangers” handling your body, and unpleasant visions of what will be done with it. These thoughts will also trigger that same protective instinct.

Our intellects may tell us that our lost loved one’s body is not what we should cling to and cherish. But our own bodies, being the living, uninterrupted continuation of cells for billions of years, are far older than our puny little intellects, and so they have their own very powerful priorities. Primal grief and longing for the physical presence of our loved ones can utterly trump our minds’ attempts to reconcile the loss. Rational thought takes a very long time to have any soothing effect at all on such heartache.

Drawing only upon your brief letter, I may be making more of her instinctive anguish than is really there, but regardless of how strongly this distress is affecting her, if it is at all, my suggestions of what to do will be the same:

First, find enough printed material, or get some pastoral support to be able to set aside any concern she has about “conforming to the Anglican way of doing things.” If that is all there is to it, then she’ll be satisfied that it’s not against the teachings. Be prepared to describe a memorial service that would be acceptable to both of you, one that would not require the presence of your body.

Then begin to talk to her about your humanist values, about compassion, respect, commitment to truth, equality, and promoting freedom. She is probably proud of you, as most parents are prone to be proud of their children, and she is probably especially proud of the good things that you do in your life. Your life is not made meaningful by your body doing all that breathing, eating and digesting, it’s made meaningful by what you do with it, and in your case, as a humanist, by practicing those humanist values for the benefit of others. Describe for her examples of how you put those values into action. Then show her how in this last act of yours, your death will share the same purpose as did your life, to be of service to your fellow human beings in any way you can.

By donating your body to science, you will be adding one more piece to the positive effect, the positive influence, the meaning that your life has already had, and that benefit will last beyond your physical life. Regardless of who outlives whom, that will be something unique to you and beautiful about you for your mother to cling to, to be proud of, to focus her love upon. Her son is a man who makes the world around him a little better because of the way he lives, from beginning to end.

Listen to her concerns carefully, ask open-ended questions about her feelings, accept her feelings without arguing against them, and respond with love and respect. Simply the ability to make her thoughts and feelings more clearly understood may help to reduce whatever is the root of her objection to your unselfish bequest to your larger family, humanity.

Richard

You may send your questions for Richard to AskRichard. All questions will eventually be answered, but not all can be published. There is a large number of requests; please be patient.

About Richard Wade

Richard Wade is a retired Marriage and Family Therapist living in California.

  • beckster

    I empathize with your mom. I have no problem with the idea of my body being donated to science, but the idea of my kids’ bodies being donated gives me the shivers. Richard has those maternal feelings pinned down exactly. If one of my young children died, I would donate their organs if possible, but it would be hard to donate their bodies to medical research.

  • Revyloution

    When I was at odds with my science teacher, I told her I was going to donate my body to English instead.

    Seriously, good job on making the donation. When Im done with this meat bag, I hope others can get some use out of it.

  • CatBallou

    What a beautiful response, Richard. I think we sometimes diminish the gut-level feelings that mothers have about the bodies they created, in an attempt to acknowledge the extremely strong feelings that fathers also have about their children.

  • http://dyfl.blogspot.com nathaniel

    I’m extremely interested in body donation. I’m sure everyone has the same issues with poor post-life planning. Is there a recommended service that will manage this for you? I don’t need money for it, but I’d rather my surviving relatives didn’t have to deal with any fees. Ideas?

  • http://blog.anti-theist.co.uk Dan

    Firstly I’d like to thank Richard for his well thought out response – I will definitely have a deep and meaningful conversation with my Mother and take the advice on board. I’m very grateful that you have obviously put a lot of time and effort into providing a thorough and thoughtful response.

    Nathaniel – I live in the UK so donations are organised by the Human Tissue Authority http://www.hta.gov.uk/donations.cfm

  • Justin jm

    but I’d rather my surviving relatives didn’t have to deal with any fees. Ideas?

    Look at it this way, nathaniel; If you donate your body, your relatives won’t need to pay $4000 on a coffin.

  • Julie Marie

    My mom had talked about having her ashes sprinkled in the mountains and over the ocean. When the time came, I couldn’t do it. Instead, I visited very cemetery in Richmond, selected the one bordered a state forest, and had her buried under a large, sprawling tree. I could live with that. Was it rational? No. Feelings aren’t always rational. The experience taught me that what sounds good in theory is often difficult to put into practice. I know my mom would have been fine with my choice.

    What I’ve told my family is this: when I am gone, do whatever will help you work through the grief. I’m an organ donor – but if they want to donate my whole body, thats fine. If they want to bury me, thats fine. If they want to put me on the mantle, thats fine too. My husband and my son’s feelings are more important to me than anything else, because it truly won’t matter to me after I’m gone.

    I can’t even think of having to make those decisions about my son without falling apart.

  • http://3harpiesltd.org/ocb Judith Bandsma

    Maybe my reaction will seem strange but, as a mother, I hope my kids will have the grace to donate any- and everything they can. It will make my ‘immortality’ go even further and touch even more lives.

    I delivered a full-term, stillborn daughter in 1969. I was asked for her body because research was going on at the time on Rh involved infants and ways to prevent their deaths. She never got a name, the hospital never notified me of what happened to her remains (which they had promised to do), I do not know where she lays. But there are other babies alive because of her. None of the rest matters.

  • Jen

    Whatever you do, don’t let her read Stiff. That book is amazing and interesting, but its the kind of mind caramel that you (well, me) must discuss, endlessly, in conversations that have nothing at all to do with corpses. Having said that, it also made me realize that any and all things that can be done with a corpse- including burial or cremation, are disgusting and a little weird.

    I also would say to back off a bit, because unless you have a tragic love of skydiving, or unless you are suffering cancer, chances are good that your mother will die before you, so pushing her on the topic too much is kind of mean.

  • Jim Baerg

    Perhaps Dan has already read this:

    http://pharyngula.org/index/weblog/comments/the_proper_reverence_due_those_who_have_gone_before/

    However, I’ll note that the authors description of examining the bones of someone he never knew makes me rather like the idea of my bones being so examined sometime after my death.

  • Bacopa

    My parents wish to be cremated and have their ashes scattered scattered on a wildflower field near Hempstead.

    I myself want to be in Body Worlds. Saw the exhibit a few years ago and nothing was more badass than “Horse and Rider”. If you saw it you would remember it forever.

  • http://www.dwasifar.com dwasifar

    I’m actually going a step further than just donating to science. I’m a registered body donor for Body Worlds.

    The responses I get to this range from “Ewww, creepy,” to “Wow, cool!”… with nothing in between. People are very polarized about it. I actually had to change lawyers because my regular guy, who I’ve been going to for years, wanted nothing to do with it and wouldn’t witness the documents or work with me on putting it in my will.

    My mom and dad seem okay with it though. Not sure if they have any private qualms, but they haven’t said anything to me about them if they do.

    Bacopa: if you want to do it, do it. If nothing else it’s a great conversation starter. :)

  • ryan

    Many medicals schools also hold a service each year to honor those who donated their bodies to the school. That such expressions of gratitude are offered and that your body would not be treated blithely by the receiving institution might also help her come to understand your decision.

    An example: http://www.ur.umich.edu/0910/Sep21_09/18.php

  • http://littlelioness.net Fiona

    The ANU medical school recently just dedicated a plaque to those who have donated their bodies, which got me thinking that that’s what I want to do, if I die. This post will help with that discussion…. my partner has similar issues but his mother won’t “let” them donate organs. Soemthing I’d have to make sure happened….

  • Siamang

    which got me thinking that that’s what I want to do, if I die

    There ain’t no ‘if’ about it, youngling.

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  • http://blog.anti-theist.co.uk Dan

    Just received this from the British Humanist Association:

    Would you like to donate your body for a very unusual science project?
    In a unique scientific project, leading academic scientists have been studying how the Ancient Egyptians mastered the process of mummification which has long been a mystery. This project is also the subject of a long running television documentary. They need a volunteer: someone with a terminal illness prepared to donate their body after their death. The Egyptians success at mummifying their dead is renowned through history but these scientists now think they have finally solved the secrets of the process. If they have, it is likely to have other significant benefits for modern medical science. The volunteer would be given a unique insight into both the science and the Egyptian history involved. Their body would be preserved – potentially for hundreds or even thousands of years.

    If this interests you please contact Joanna on 0203 372 8521 or email Joanna@fulcrumtv.com. We appreciate that this is a delicate matter. By contacting this number there is no obligation to take part in the film. All calls will be treated with discretion.

  • http://n/a Keith

    This is a great thread for dialogue on whole body donation. Personally, I’ve seen the positive impact that organ and tissue donation has on the living, and thus, wholeheartedly endorse the concept of transplant and whole body donation.

    At age 54, I am registered as a whole body donor to a medical school. The donation is without restriction, but my hope is that my cadaver will be thoroughly dissected by first year medical students in gross anatomy.

    When the dissection is completed, my leftovers will be incinerated with those of other men and women, to ultimately become commingled human ashes in a communal cemetary plot. As a secular humanist, I consider this an incredible honor — a disposition free of religiousity and superstition, in which you are useful to humanity.

    Certainly, I encourage my fellow secular humanists to consider becoming whole body donors for medical schools, plastination exhibits, or recycled as transplant tissue.