Hey, ACLU folks, check out these rites

Candles.jpgTry to imagine this scene.

You are in a laboratory on a state university campus, in facilities funded with a stream of tax dollars. The dark room is full of medical students, taking part in a sacred ritual that will end a required course in Gross Anatomy.

It is time to say goodbye to the late Anna Marie, Meredith, Chet and Sal. Here is how Larry Keller of The Palm Beach Post describes the scene in Boca Raton:

Those aren’t the real names of the four cadavers the students have been slicing, sawing and probing since November in a fourth-floor laboratory in the biomedical science building. They don’t know their true names. So these are the names they gave them.

With great solemnity, the professor begins leading the students in ancient Greek Orthodox prayers, while Byzantine chant fills the air. Beeswax candles glow throughout the lab and rose incense drifts in clouds around the worshipers, just like in the ancient Christian rites in sanctuaries on Sunday mornings.

Or maybe it is Latin-rite Catholic prayers and Gregorian chant. Whatever. It doesn’t really matter, since I made this part up.

Hang in there with me for a moment.

How do you think the university would react to this ritual? The local chapter of the ACLU? We can even ask how The Palm Beach Post would have covered this shocking attack on the wall between church and state laboratory.

We don’t have to worry about that scenario, since I will now tell you what actually happened in the event covered by Keller’s “Ritual lets med students bid farewell to cadavers.” The prayers, you see, were from Tibetan Buddhism.

The lab, with its stainless-steel gurneys and cabinets, was stark and sterile. But now, as students reentered the room, the stink of formaldehyde was replaced by the sensual scent of incense. Buddhist chants filled the room. And each student was handed a candle and formed a circle near the gurneys, now adorned with elegant flowers, not dissected corpses.

One by one each person made brief remarks, expressing appreciation for the dead from whom they learned and thanking their teachers and fellow students for their shared experiences. After speaking, each person used their lighted candle to illuminate that of the student next to them.

“They say the body is the temple of the soul,” said Fanny Bangoura, 28, of Cooper City. “I’m grateful people donated their temples for us to explore.”

This is a very interesting story and it veers out of the spiritual into some sticky issues of ethics and medical education. The use of cadavers is way down and some people are trying to turn this entire exercise into a 3-D computer exercise. Others insist that there is no substitute for the real thing.

Also, let me stress that I am not saying that Keller’s report contains latent anti-Christian bias or something. It is a moving story and told with dignity.

I just kind of wonder what would happen if you cut out the Buddhism angle and substituted, well, a pack of Assembly of God missionaries praying in unknown tongues with their hands in the air in Pentecostal praise, while medical students marched in circles carrying Christian flags.

I can’t imagine The Palm Beach Post going for that. Instead, we get:

Back at the closing ritual in the lab, students and teachers finished their remarks, and a melancholy song filled the room with the lyrics: “Gently, gently. Resting sweetly.”

Some bowed their heads in reflection, faces aglow in the candlelight. Then the bright lab lights came on again, and Blanks spoke one last time.

“Go out and make a new world.”

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • http://www.wildhunt.org/blog.html Jason Pitzl-Waters

    Being engaged to a medical student I know that any rites of this nature done in a medical school setting is highly unorthodox.

    All it would take is one student to complain for it to end. I don’t think the administrators would care what the rite was, Buddhist, Christian or Jewish, the only way this is still going on is because none of the students have a problem with it and the administrators are looking the other way until someone does have a problem. A school wouldn’t ignore the concerns of a future doctor lightly.

  • http://www.relapsedcatholic.blogspot.com Kathy Shaidle

    Actually, the University of Toronto holds a ceremony like this every year. Students invite the families of the deceased to attend, and talk about how vital the donation of the body was to their education. I believe bagpipes are somehow involved.

    I wrote about it for the Toronto Star about 4 years ago.


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