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?
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.