Death, Detachment and Donation of Self

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The unselfish act of donating ones’ organs and/or body after death is a great gesture of impoverishing oneself before one’s Maker while making a life-giving gift to the Pilgrim Church left behind, especially the ones in need of restored health and a fresh lease of life. It is a Catholic thing to do!

Fear of Death

When I was young, I was terrified that I would lose my parents and terrified of death in general. Growing up, I would tip-toe up to my mother while she slept to check if she was still breathing.

Often during family prayer, my father (retired from the military) would thank God for bringing him back from the war alive and without a disability. Even into young adulthood, I wondered how it would be not to have one or both of my parents.

When someone passed away, I would invariably note large families and relatives come together to pray during the wake at home, and involve in arrangements for the funeral. My family did not have many relatives. As my parents grew older and their physical abilities diminished, I began to imagine how I would arrange for their funeral. They had not expressed any wish or directive in that regard.

More About Fear of Security

First of all, I had to overcome what I thought was fear of death. As I began to mature in my relationship with God, I understood that I feared for my own sense of security than death itself. Over a three-year period, I strove to overcome this fear of loss. I was beginning to arrive at God as my hiding place and firm foundation rather than human relations.

But then I also noted a social and communitarian aspect to death—one frightening and the other heartening. While humans around the world are perishing in great numbers owing to several manmade and natural reasons, not everyone is accompanied (spiritually and physically) on their final journey. At the same time, death so evokes the noble in each person that even strangers and adversaries show up to pay respects to a departed soul. Both realities challenged me to pursue a greater detachment from seeking any earthly accompaniment upon my death.

Poverty and Simplicity

Death is referred to as a leveler—the inescapable reality of life. “For you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” (Genesis 3:19) Yet, I noted that the impoverishment of death was not always accompanied by simplicity in the funeral process. Going by my experiences in India, at times, the departed would be honored with heaps of flowers and wreaths. Other times, the poverty of the family and its friends showed in the plainness of the funeral scene. Occasionally, I heard of families go into debt to give their departed loved one a grand funeral or a lavish month’s mind. The wide disparities of life manifested themselves during funerals.

Leaving a Legacy

I noted not all deaths or funerals were attended by tears or moving eulogies. Sometimes I heard mourners complain about the summer sun or having to return home to attend to their lot. And not at all times did I find the church packed with real mourners; at times, people died friendlessly. Some funerals would have the who’s who in town and a grand choir in attendance. Others seemed to be conducted like a chore.

I desired for death in my family to be meaningful and inspiring to one and all, regardless of whether the church filled up or not. But I had no idea if those desires were realistic.

A Eucharistic Solution

Soon, I received a practical and Catholic solution to the problem of simplicity and leaving a legacy. It came through Father Jerry Rosario, a passionate Jesuit preacher who was the priest in residence at my parish while I was still a university student. My family came to know him as a true ascetic.

A champion blood donor (around 200 times till date), Father Jerry had signed a Living Will pledging his body to medical research. At a special Lenten program, he proposed organ and body donation to his audience as acts in imitation of Christ’s life-giving self-sacrifice.

“This is my body, which will be given for you; do this in memory of me.” (Luke 19:22)

Jesus’ words “This is my body, which will be given for you” at the Last Supper which became reality on the Cross at Calvary offered a model for redemptive impoverishment. “Do this in memory of me” was a call to follow the model.

This was the Christian case for all kinds of human donations—blood, organ as also donation of the whole body to science.  The idea stayed with me; the thought of an empty tomb inspired me.

‘Fleshed Out’ in Church Teachings

The world’s first kidney transplantation in 1954 sparked crucial discussions in the Church about the moral propriety of organ donation. An Acta Apostolicae Sedis (official gazette of the Holy See) on June 10, 1956 records Pope Pius XII declaring organ donation and body donation to be legitimate. In “The Prolongation of Life”, November 24, 1957, he responds to a question regarding when a person “plunged into unconsciousness through central paralysis” can “be considered de facto or even de jure dead”. Pope Pius XII notes that death is determined by medical experts and it “does not fall within the competence of the Church.” Thereby, ‘brain death’, the criteria for organ donation, came to be accepted in Catholic medical ethics even before its recognition in medical-legal history.

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger prior to becoming Pope Benedict XVI held an organ donor’s card since the 1970s. While cautioning that “the body can never be considered a mere object” (cf. Deus Caritas Estn. 5), he described organ donation as being

“[t]he act of love which is expressed with the gift on one’s vital organs remains a genuine testimony of charity that is able to look beyond death so that life always wins.”

The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches:

Autopsies can be morally permitted for legal inquests or scientific research. The free gift of organs after death is legitimate and can be meritorious. The Church permits cremation, provided that it does not demonstrate a denial of faith in the resurrection of the body (CCC 2301) .

Putting Thought to Action: High Notes and Challenges

I imagined I was well-thought-out and well-advised on how I would ‘bury my dead.’ However, real-life posed a few scenarios leaving me little time to take tough decisions correctly.

When Mom died, her eyes were donated to an eye research institute. Although friends would help me arrange for her burial (not a case of a funeral home being involved), I chose rather to cremate her the next day. My sister had doubts and questions about the Catholic advisability of cremation. Some Catholic friends expressed dissent. I sensed that my intentions of having “meaningful” funerals in the family could backfire if these issues were not addressed publicly within my close-knit parish community.

I spent all night looking up the Catechism on the subject and the magisterium of popes who addressed it, sharing findings with those who spent the wake with my family. All went well at the funeral. Father Jerry’s homily was a teaching moment on the topic to the parish community.

Mom’s godparents’ family generously offered the use of their family grave to place her remains so we had a place marker to visit on All Souls Day. Her remains collected in a cloth bag were interred in that borrowed grave.

A month after Mom’s passing, when death and afterlife were on the family’s mind, I asked Dad if he was donating his body upon death (since that was often in the family conversation). “Yes”, he promptly responded. In the past, Dad would say that by joining the military, a man, in fact, pledges his body to the nation.

When he passed away, his body was arranged to be donated to a medical research institute which was willing to work with the parish to transport Dad’s body soon in its ambulance after his Christian funeral Mass was over.

Again, the questions and concerns of family and friends on body donation by a Catholic had to be addressed. Ultimately, it was a poignant moment when we left the church in the ambulance with Dad’s body after the funeral, the parish priest and the people gathered outside to bid farewell.

A week later, the family placed a few remains (hair and nails) of Dad in the same family grave where Mom’s ashes were interred. Representatives from the Army provided a guard of honor at the cemetery—something that had to be sacrificed at the funeral since the body donation process had to be completed within a limited time after death.

The homilist at Dad’s memorial service declared that he “now knows” what to do with his body upon death. In the months following, several from the parish and from among non-Christian friends began to consider and study the prospect of body donation, reaching out for advice. I also heard of a few who actually chose this alternate mode of Christian ‘burial’.

The research institute (which had received over 500 cadaver donations), acknowledged Dad’s body donation as their first from a Christian.

Lessons on Funeral Planning

My family understood that the practicality of arranging for a funeral involving organ or body donation needed much more planning and forethought. Not only a Catholic family has to be on the same page with the immediate family of the loved one regarding such donations, but must also educate and empower them on how to go about it in a morally licit manner while dealing with the church, funeral and medical agencies. This is especially a challenge in geographies where these concepts are still developing and where cultural barriers impede decision-making during the vulnerable eventuality of loss of a loved one.

Writing Living Wills and addressing organ/body donation issues in them would be the prudent way to go about making the donor’s intent clear and practicable. My husband Paul and I decided to do just this.

We marked our tenth wedding anniversary with Holy Mass celebrated at our home. Our Presentation of Gifts included our joint Living Will donating our bodies to science, which we signed (along with friends acting as witnesses) in the presence of the celebrants.

A year later, when our son Jonathan received his First Holy Communion, we requested our family friends to register as organ, eye and tissue donors as a reminder of Jesus’ self-gift to our little son as also everyone else.

Sadly, some Catholics fail to pierce through the humanitarian countenance of human donations to examine what the Church teaches on their moral legitimacy. They believe and propagate their erroneous view that all forms of these donations as morally acceptable at all times. I come across Catholic friends on social media lauding, for instance, semen donation (a fundamentally immoral act), womb donation (rarely ethical), and such other seemingly altruistic or innocuous gestures (e.g. keeping ashes of a loved one at home or making keepsakes out of aborted/miscarried babies) ignoring concerns of commoditization, organ trafficking, use of inhumane procedures, or transgression of natural moral law. The magisterium on the subject of human donations is mature and should not be ignored by those considering donation.

Catholics considering donating their ‘body to science’, Father Tad Pacholczyk of the National Catholic Bioethics Center provides a crystal-clear Catholic primer.

Life-Giving Last Gesture                                                                                                    

Burying the Dead, as Catholics of all ages can remind themselves, is as important as every other Corporal Work of Mercy we are called to practice. We must also remember the Spiritual Work of Mercy of praying for the dead and the dying. And where possible, beginning with ourselves and our family members, demonstrate and influence a more sensitive and life-giving expression of this final merciful act that gives dignity to the dead and glorifies Christ.

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