Friday, 12 September 2008

Life after death

We received the latest edition today of Humanitie, the quarterly magazine of the Humanist Society of Scotland. In it is this, my first (paid!) column in a series - accompanied by a twin column authored by Mike, the Not Quite So Friendly Humanist. The theme of this quarter's issue is death.

In April, I went with the local student linguistics club to the anatomy lab of a teaching hospital. I have studied the physical and psychological processes of speech for ten years, but I had never before seen the speech organs in place; never seen everything connected as it is in life. That visit greatly enriched my education.

If the anatomy lab is so helpful to a linguist, imagine the benefit to medical students and to those whose lives they will go on to save.

It's not all learning and delight, though. Stepping into the room, seeing the tables with the unmistakably human forms under sheets, I felt a stab in my heart - the visceral tragedy of death. Students of anatomy must acknowledge and respect the humanity - the sacredness - of the bodies being studied, while remaining detached enough to learn what there is to learn. Afterwards, one of my fellow students asked, "Did anyone else feel sad after the visit?" Yes, we did. This knowledge we had gained, this understanding, was only possible because people had died.

But the choice before us is not between their life and our knowledge. The choice is what to do when death comes. Though we were uneasy at times, I do not think anyone in our group regretted the experience, nor failed to appreciate the gravity of the choices and events that made it possible.

Because of that trip, I have decided to donate my body.

I've heard (and can imagine) many reasons for not donating one's body. They range from the superstitious - "What if my spirit can't move on because my body was not put to rest properly?" - to the self-conscious - "Do I want so many young medical students peering into my body?" These worries are real; but can they compete against the undeniable and tangible benefits the gift of one's body provides?

Simply put, yes. 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, medical students still need human bodies to learn from. The days of the Resurrection Men, and the grisly Burke and Hare murders, are well behind us. Today, the utmost respect is shown to donated bodies. But, as in the days of the Edinburgh grave robbers, there is always a shortage. Universities are forced to exploit alternative means of anatomical instruction - sometimes ingenious, but never quite as good as the real thing.

The 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."

The decision is deeply personal, and I do not condemn those who choose differently from me. But I do ask that you think about it. (Perhaps many people don't donate their bodies because it just doesn't occur to them.) Ask yourself which option accords best with your values and your beliefs.

Contact your nearest medical school to find out more about arranging the donation of your body.


  1. "Sacredness" is a good choice of word for a linguistic humanist. ;)

    However, I am being flippant as I really enjoyed what you wrote and will now consider what to do with my own body after death.


  2. Very interesting and thoughtful! I've posted my own reflection from a Christian perspective here.

    It's definitely an issue I need to think about further.

  3. Congratulations on your first Humanitie column! This reminds me of the Bodyworlds Exhibition where they had preserved human bodies posed to be performing various activities so that you could see the anatomy at work. I never did manage to see it but there was an aoption to donate your body to the project.

  4. "Today, the utmost respect is shown to donated bodies."

    You friends with many medical students? Go and ask some. I'm sure in the C18 many treated donated bodies with the utmost respect, and I'm equally anecdoctally sure many don't now.

  5. Clare, thanks. I have to admit mixed feelings to the Bodyworlds Exhibition.

    Berenike, I do not know many medical students. I know a nursing student, who has related to me how very carefully and respectfully the bodies of dead patients are treated.

    I would expect the reverse of your claim to be closer to the truth: as a society, we are more consistently respectful of the dead now than we once were. In the past, dead criminals and homeless people were effectively considered fair game for anatomists to study. At least, that's how I interpret the Anatomy Act of 1932, enacted in response to the revolting acts of grave-robbing (and worse) to obtain medical cadavers. The act was repealed in 1984.

    Your attitude worries me, because it is the sort of belief that would prevent many people from donating their bodies. Do you have any reason to believe that bodies are shown disrespect in the anatomy lab?

  6. Attitude yourself, mister :-)

    You have anecdotal evidence for respect, I have anecdotal evidence for disrespect.

    Been in the cafe in St Cuthbert's cemetery recently?

  7. I think "attitude" was an impolitic word on my part. "Your position worries me," I should have said.

    No, I have not been in that cafe. Could you please share something of what you have learned? It sounds like it is important to this issue.

    For what it's worth, I will reiterate the other anecdotal evidence I have - my first-hand experience. Not only did none of the students in our group seem at all inclined to disrespect (we were there to learn); both of the anatomists who gave us the tour impressed on us the importance of respect while in the anatomy lab.

    Remember, the supply of donors is already short. Even from a purely pragmatic standpoint, the teachers would, I think, have little patience for students whose behaviour endangered that supply by failing to respect the gravity of the situation while working with the bodies.

    But that does not speak to their behaviour outside of the lab. Perhaps you can tell us something about that.

  8. I'm happy to see that you have another Christian blogger commenting on your posts. I've enjoyed both yours and his take on the treatment of the body after death.

    I wonder whether anyone has ever surveyed people about their thoughts on death. I found a reference to a tool here and I think I might, given time, get some results...

    I think some more party-oriented students might care less about death, but I speculate.


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