Friday, 20 January 2012

Dying for Science

Le penseur

Close to a year ago I reported here about the writing of my first will (see here and here) while delving more than a bit on some of the choices I have made there.
One will related question that has bugged me then and still bugs me today is the matter of disposing with my dead body, an area where I am beset by conflicting thoughts: on one hand, I want to contribute to the world to the best of my abilities, even with just a dead body to do so; on the other hand, I have this unexplained phobia of not wanting others to toy with my body even when I’m done with it. Perhaps the latter comes from friends’ rather mischievous stories of their cadavers adventures at medical school, or perhaps these are just the normal social inhibitions we all have when considering others pointing at our bodily deficiencies. Regardless of the exact detail, I ended up specifying the following in my will:
Moshe's body is not to be taken back to Israel for burial (unless Moshe happens to die in Israel).
Ideally, Moshe's body is to be disposed of in the most environmentally friendly method available. If that is too complicated, then cremation is a viable alternative.
I cannot say I am happy with the above. It always felt like an unnecessary compromise, but I just glided along with it. Glided, that is, until Christopher Hitchens died and until his brother Peter posted information such as this about his funeral arrangements:
Some people have asked me when and where my brother’s funeral took place. In fact, as Christopher donated his body to medical science, there has not been and will not be any funeral. He took this decision partly because of his religious (or rather non-religious) opinions, and partly because, much influenced by his friend Jessica Mitford and her book ‘The American Way of Death’, he disliked what he regarded as the excesses of the American funeral industry.
And that was it. Hitchens sealed it for me. I may have some relatively unreasonable phobias on the matter, but it is clearly the right thing to do: I should donate my body for medical science!
The advantages are clear. First, I may be able to assist in promoting others’ health even after my death, which is a mighty achievement by anyone’s account. Second, I will help my family by reliving them of the whole charade that is the matter of funeral arrangements. And third, I will prevent my grave (or otherwise the location of my remains) from turning into some sort of a shrine, the way I am very sad to see my Israeli family turning the graves of some favorite family members into some sort of pilgrimage sites.
Christopher Hitchens has helped me open my eyes on many things, and he is still doing so now (I’m greatly enjoying his Hitch 22 memoir at the moment). In this particular case he proved inspirational even in death, which says a lot about the man. As for me, I know posting my body dispensation preferences on my blog does not count as a legal document, but you’ll have to excuse me: I simply cannot be bothered to go [and pay] the lawyer to have my will changed; that official change request would have to wait. However, since my will is to be executed by friends and relatives, let me make it clear it is my wish to have my dead body donated to medical science, and it is also my wish for them to respect this wish of mine.

Image by jeanpierrelavoie, Creative Commons license


Sarah said...

I agree it is thoughtful to have clearly left your instructions for your family as to what to do with you after death so they don't have to guess what you wanted. The thing that concerns me is the no funeral attitude. I understand we come from 2 totally different backgrounds and that in yours the funeral is probably one of religion and tradition and so that would not be relevant to you.

From my perspective funerals aren't for the person who died but for those left behind. It is a time they can start to make sense of the fact their loved one is gone. They do this by viewing the body, reflecting on their memories, through music, writing eulogies, getting together with other loved ones to share their stories and grief. All these things are important for people to come to terms with their loss. People need this chance to have closure.

It doesn't have to be a religious affair but you could plan a beautiful remembrance ceremony being held by civil celebrant or alike. Leave suggestions for music you would liked played, stories you would like remembered.

Having planned 2 funerals now and selected pieces of music, I chose pieces from bands I knew they liked and thought reflected the mood but would have been nicer to know this was their favourite song and it would have had a bit more meaning.

Grieving is a long complex process and not one that can be completed on one day, but it is a funeral is a starting place. Even if it is done by sitting around having pizza and ice cream, you have to give your loved ones especially your child the chance to say good bye.

Moshe Reuveni said...

Excellent feedback that merits a clarification.

I am not against people remembering me and coming together to remember me; if anything, I'd be very sad if that didn't happen (in the words of David Bowie, "and who can bear to be forgotten?). I think of such a farewell as the one you're generally describing as the best one, especially if it repeats itself from time to time for old times' sake. For the record, my will contains fairely detailed instructions on this regard (pointing, for example, at a specific Cosmos episode); I even posted a list of the albums impacting my life the most here to help cater such events even though I suspect I won't be able to attend them.

However, what I am against is the idolization of a rotten piece of meat. I don't want my dead body, or the location of what used to be my dead body and is now maggot feed, to become the important thing. It is my memory that is important, the data I left behind, rather than the actual atoms that were mine once upon a time but now belong to some other things. It is my conciousness that should be celebrated, not my dead body.
If people I know want to spend some time with my dead body before it's dispensed with then good on them. Personally, I will find it strange, for two reasons.
The first is that I would prefer it if their last memory of me is not one of a rotten meat but rather one of a lively human. When thinking of an experience, like some specific travel holiday, us humans tend to remember the last thing better than most of everything else; given that shortcoming, I would prefer a sweeter final experience than that of a dead body.
My second reason is to do with me growing up in a Jewish culture. In Judaism the dead body is considered defiled/impure, something a decent person avoids. Other than for identification purposes no one sees the body and it's wrapped up in sheets as it's buried. The Christian (?) habit I often see in films of farewelling a coffinated dead body seems therefore rather perverse to me.
Let's agree it's a cultural thing. Mind you, I think Judaism got most of it wrong: in the two Jewish funerals I did attend (the only funerals I've attended) no one said a word other than the Rabbi, and he was there for the fast buck; he said a few words that stunk of not knowing the person he was talking about. The only other form of talking was by the eldest male son/closest relative who read the famous Jewish prayer "Oh Merciful God" (if ever there was a euphemism that wins them all, this is the one). Where is the celebration of the person's life? Definitely not in Judasim. There are memorial services later, but the event with the most impact is wasted on praising the Lord (and even those events are meant to be used to appease our killer of a lord).
Screw this.

Sarah said...

It is interesting you still feel that way about viewing the dead considering your very practical understandings of things. Being dead is just another state of being. The person has just stopped their bodily functions. I understand though we are all products of our environment so some things are just well ingrained.

I have done 3 viewings of people close to me. I have been trying to think of how it impacted me to describe to you. It wasn't traumatic. I saw it as a last chance to spend time with my loved ones. It was true they didn't look like the way they usually did especially when people who didn't know them tried to guess how they did their make up. Ultimately it was useful as it was evident that they just weren't there anymore. They were gone. Which I guess helps you start the letting go process.

I think the thing that I found useless was people who came to the viewings and purged themselves of their regrets. Apologising for a lifetime of wrong doings between them. Great your conscience is clear but unfortunately the other person will never know that. That sort if stuff is for the living.

I think viewings must also comes from the era when the funeral industry wasn't so big. When people died they would be laid out in a room in the house and the family would do their farewells before burial. In some ways that made death a more normal part of life as right from early on children would see death as part of life. Now days it is so sanitised, it has become taboo and as a result we don't know how to deal with death, the dying and the grieving. Which as something that is going to happen to us and everyone we love is really sad.

Moshe Reuveni said...

First, I don't think that "being dead is just another state of being". In a similar way to atheism not being a religion, being dead is a state of not being.
Semantics aside, we are not in disagreement. While I, personally, don't see much point to saying farewell to a dead body, I fully recognize this is an entirely personal affair. If people want to say farewell to my body before it's donated to science, then by all means - enjoy it while it lasts.
In my personal case I doubt there would be a line of people there, though. Most family would be overseas and technically my body would be severely rotten by the time they show up. That is, if they do at all: if I was to die at the average age (is it 72 for men?), most of my overseas family that cares about me would not be in a condition to come.

Uri said...

I certainly wouldn’t come just to view your corpse. I might do it if it would be any comfort to your family, but if you wait until you’re 72, I probably won’t be in much condition to travel myself.

I’ve been to funerals of the purely religious type you describe (although except for the deceased name, the rabbi didn’t make any personalization to the ceremony), and also to some where people gave moving eulogies. I think the funeral - and the later shiv’a - is a good way to help people deal with the grieving and get some kind of closure. Since you’ll be dead by then, why should we care what you think?

If I ever die, I would like my family to do what feels right for them. If they are happy with donating my body, or burying it, or whatever - good for them. It wouldn’t make me happy if they visited my grave every six months, but if it help them in any way…

Moshe Reuveni said...

I agree the funeral and the Shivaa are good ways to get a grip on things. I tend to disagree with the logic of putting family needs above all else, though. Some reasons include:
1. At least in my pretty dysfunctional family, getting people to agree on what's best could take a while. I suspect they'll just stick to "what everyone else is doing" instead of what would be of most benefit.
2. There is some importance to the legacy I leave the world even if I'm not longer there to enjoy its fruits. Helping medicine science to cure others and/or getting rid of my body in an environmentally friendly way go a long way.
3. Giving people choice is nice and all, but what if the choice they make is morally wrong? What my family tends to do with its dead, i.e. make their grave a pilgrimage site (visited much more often than twice a year), is way wrong in my book. So wrong I have a big problem assisting it even on the other side of death. We all agree of the need to help the family deal with the change, but what they're doing is the opposite - by worshipping the grave they fail to come to grips with reality and continue with their lives.

There is a problem with donating the body to medicine and letting the family have its farewells with it first, in that by the time the family finishes off the body might not be useful anymore. In that case, I think medicine takes precedence over family.
I'll further and expand on my second point above. If my body parts can help any living person through organ donation, I would expect nothing else but these organs being used to help others as quickly and effectively as possible – even if that means no family farewelling. The way I see it, the family's need to say farewell is a pale argument next to the potential contributions of organ donations.

P.S. The rabbis in the funerals I've attended said two words on how the dead were "just" and "faithful". The latter was certainly not the case with my uncle.