Resurrection of the Body and Organ Donation


Does Christian belief in the resurrection of the body place obstacles in the way of donating organs? In searching for an answer to this question I decide to go back to one of the first theologians of the church, Saint Augustine. In his essay De Dura Pro Mortuis, St. Augustine never makes burial a condition of the resurrection for burial is “no aid to salvation” but “an office of humanity”. Burial is only a testimony to the resurrection, declaring that the faith does not condemn the body or devalue it to just an empty disposable cartridge for the soul (Schaff 1956, 550).


There are also at least two New Testament passages which also lend to the argument that one does not need the body intact for resurrection. The first is from the gospel in which the writer states, “if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into hell” (Mark 9:47). The other passage is taken from the Book of Revelation where the write tells us that “death will be no more . . . For the first things have passed away. And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See I am making all things new” (Revelation 21:4-5).


There is positive warrant in the Christian liturgy and Christian ethics for organ donation. Christ shares, under the species of bread and wine, his body and blood with his disciples. The disciple is invited to share in this life (self-donative love) of giving oneself to others. The support of organ donations encourages the development of a community where members truly give of themselves to their neighbor. For Paul Ramsey, this is an important reason why giving the gift of donated organs is to be preferred.


A society will be a better human community in which giving and receiving is the rule, not taking for the sake of good to come . . . The positive consent called for by the Gift Acts, answering the need for gifts by encouraging real givers, meets the measure of authentic community among men (sic). (Ramsey 1970, 210)


While justifying and encouraging organ donation, the Christian would have to step back from the language that such a deed is symbolic of immortality. Such deeds themselves are simply signs of a self-donative love. The language of symbolic immortality is too extreme for a Christian. It would be better to talk simply about the assistance that one mortal renders another as a response to the love of God and sustained by the Holy Spirit.


It is interesting to note that St. Augustine had to face this issue in a different form in De Dura Pro Mortuis on the care to be given to the dead. One reason for respectful funeral services in St. Augustine’s day was the notion that the dead have the power to return to and care for the living (and perhaps this notion is still alive today as indicated by many TV shows and films). Partial proof of this was offered in the appearance of the dead to the living in dreams. Since the dead are both immortal and providential, it seemed prudent to treat them right. St. Augustine undercuts this proof by pointing out that the living also appear in dreams without knowing (and often not caring). Why assume that the dead watch over and provide for us as guardians?


Augustine’s beliefs forced him to be wary of a religious sentimentality that substituted the providence of one’s ancestors for the providence of God. Consistent with the rejection of ancestor worship, he wanted to eliminate from funerals any suggestion of an immortal continuum between generations. The funeral was an occasion where the full reality of death had to be acknowledged. Far from continuing to watch over others, the dead turn from the living and focus on God. The funeral is a double farewell. The dead is removed from the care of the community and the community is removed from the care of the dead.


The fundamental situation is unchanged by procedures for the postmortem extraction and transplantation of organs. The receiving of an organ does not rescue the living from the need to eventually die. It only defers the day when they will have to do their own dying. Nor does the receiving of an organ, in-and-of-itself, teach the living how to live unless the recipient, in receiving the organ discerns a self-donative life of which the giving of the organ may be a sign.


This is not the place to take further the question of the Christian warrant for a funeral, however; on restricted issue remains. If there is warrant for the giving of one’s organs, nerve, and tissue to unknown recipients, is there also still warrant in such cases for funeral services? Has the liturgy already taken place in the hospital? What about the unused remains of the dead? I point to the Christian’s prime sacrament for the answer. The liturgical action of the Eucharist is particularly pertinent to the question since it is a act of consuming a sacred meal in which Christians eat bread and drink wine, as the body and blood of Christ and as the symbolic presence of the self-donative act of Jesus.


In denominations, such as Catholics, Anglicans, and Lutherans, that view the elements of the Eucharist in high regard, they have developed customs for the respectful disposition of the reserved elements (the bread and wine not consumed). The remaining elements are either taken to the sick, consumed after the service, or poured into the ground. It is inappropriate to dump it down the sink or toss it in the trash. This respect toward the reserved elements has some bearing on funeral practices in the case of a body from which organs have been extracted. Ritual provision should be made for the respectful disposition of the remains of the reserved element from which came self-donative action of a person within the community. Such ritual provisions is hardly a condition of salvation, but it is a testimony to the privileged place of the body in acts of love.


In the Middle Ages there was what is known as the ars moriendi, the art of dying. This art of dying was focused not on the earthly body, but on the spiritual body. The dying person made a profession of faith. That faith was then demonstrated in the context of the community, or the Body of Christ. The dying person was expected to make it easier for others when he or she died. In the Middle Ages this was done by making peace with the living and providing for others (including gifts of charity) after death.


bones.jpgMost Christians were not buried with personal markers, and usually buried in mass graves. This was because the emphasis was not on the individual, but on the entire community of Christians - the Body of Christ (Chidester 1990, 31). It was more important for those buried to be near the remains of a saint (preferably a martyr) than for their earthly life to be remembered. Often these mass graves would be exhumed and the bones of the dead would be collect and placed in smaller areas with no attempt at keeping the parts of individual bodies together (Ibid., 203). There are also examples of these bones being used to adorn “bone chapels” in Europe such as the ones at the Capuchin monastery in Rome and Faro in Portugal (pictured to the right).


Many saints from the early church and Middle Ages have their remains spread out all over the world. A good number of martyrs bodies were also dismembered after dead and fed to animals, yet they were seen as the ultimate example of a Christian. This indicated that there was not any real concern over whether all the body parts of these faithful people were intact. This would indicate that the Christians of the early church and the Middle Ages did not have a great concern about the body remaining intact.


This brings us to the point that perhaps we need something like an ars moriendi today, though in a different way. In this ars moriendi the person would make a profession of faith in the context of the community by donating organs to the community just as those of the Middle Ages provided for others after their deaths. The focus would again be on the spiritual body and not the earthly body. Indeed, should it not be possible out of belief in God to die a quite different human death, a death worthy of Christians? When Christians died they should not die without emotion, without meaning. Jesus did not die without emotion or meaning. For each Christian to give unconditionally even at his or her death would acknowledge that death has indeed lost its sting.


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