I am considering donating my body to medical science following my death and then having the remains cremated for eventual burial. What is the Catholic Church’s position regarding these procedures?
— Diana in Petersburg
The Catechism of the Catholic Church states in No. 2296 that “organ donation after death is a noble and meritorious act and is to be encouraged as an expression of generous solidarity.”
Also, the Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services (6th Ed.) states, “Catholic health care institutions should encourage and provide the means whereby those who wish to do so may arrange for the donation of their organs and bodily tissue, for ethically legitimate purposes, so that they may be used for donation and research after death. Such organs should not be removed until it has been medically determined that the patient has died. In order to prevent any conflict of interest, the physician who determines death should not be a member of the transplant team” (Nos. 63-64).
So, the first part of the question, on the surface, is answered. If and when someone wants to do this, though, it’s important that this is a discussion that is had with their family, if it all possible, when the person is well. This enables their family members to process their loved ones wishes prior to an illness or death.
For someone who is wanting to donate their whole body, I would recommend not only discussing it with family, but also to do the research as to which institution they would like to handle the process. One of the reasons for this is to make sure the institution will be treating the body of the deceased with reverence and respect. It is also important that we recognize the gift of the person that has made the choice to make a whole-body donation.
When we talk about cremation, we can also refer back to the Catechism of the Catholic Church in No. 2301, as it continues, “The Church permits cremation, provided that it does not demonstrate a denial of faith in the resurrection of the body.” So, cremation is permitted, but the Catholic Church “clearly prefers and urges that the body of the deceased be present for the funeral rites, since the presence of the human body better expresses the values which the Church affirms in those rites” (Order of Christian Funerals Appendix 2, No. 413). Obviously, there are circumstances, including whole-body donations, in which that is not possible.
One of the things that we are also reminded of, in the Order of Christian Funerals, is that “The cremated remains of a body should be treated with the same respect given to the human body from which they come. This includes the use of a worthy vessel to contain the ashes, the manner in which they are carried, and the care and attention to appropriate placement and transport, and the final disposition. The cremated remains should be buried in a grave or entombed in a mausoleum or columbarium.” (Appendix 2, No. 417). This reminds us that a person’s remains, regardless of the condition, should be treated with dignity and respect.
While more could be said both about donation and cremation, hopefully this small reply will be valuable for beginning or continuing discussions.
Father Adam Prichard is chaplain of St. Anthony Hospital in Effingham.