Yesterday morning Lynn and I participated in the first Carrera del Donante (“Donors’ Race”) in Zafra. Organized by the local organizations of blood and organ donors together, it aimed to raise their profile and convince people to sign up. (Lynn came third in her category, way to go! I ran with her – all I lacked was the “personal trainer” t-shirt – so where I came in my category doesn’t count…)
After several years as a blood donor here I was blocked from any further donation a decade ago after they found out that I had lived for more than a year in the UK between 1980 and 1989, the height of mad cow disease time. The same happened on a beach in France once when I tried to give blood when we were on holiday there… Makes one wonder about blood transfusions in the UK, but that’s another story.
Anyway… I was surprised to find out yesterday that, although they still don’t want my blood, they will have my organs. A proverbial pound of flesh comes to mind. But whatever, that is their problem, not mine; I won’t be around to show due remorse if some poor organ recipient were to develop Creutzfeldt–Jakob disease as a result. So, I duly signed up, took my free pen (what an incentive! – look closely at the photo and you might even spot it) and ran the race. I have no plans to be donating organs in the near future, but hey, if I were to suffer a deadly accident that left most of my body intact, I would prefer to give life to others through my death than have the remaining good bits gradually rot in a Spanish cemetery niche, or more likely be turned to ashes and strewn in creation somewhere. Never would 2 Corinthians 4:12 be truer!
In talking to other Christians here, though, I am surprised at how many are aghast at the thought of being an organ donor. It’s not so much the concept itself (as if we are tempting fate by carrying a donor card, being more likely to bring an accident on ourselves than if we don’t); rather, it seems to be rooted in theological qualms over resurrection. I mean, if your body is distributed between a number of individuals around the country, what will happen at the resurrection? In a variation of the Sadducees’ “Whose wife will she be” question, who will get my kidneys?!
Under this scheme, cremation – or indeed anything other than burial – is a “non-Christian” way of disposing of a corpse. Often supported by rapid overviews of Scripture and a recital of Jewish and traditional Christian practices, I have been offered studies that show that burial is the only option for the faithful Christian. Is it? Does it matter?
Well, for many in the secularized West, it really doesn’t matter. In our thoroughly materialistic and dichotomistic thinking, body is body and soul is soul, and what happens to one certainly will not affect what happens to the other. (What about spirit, you ask? Are we not a tripartite being? That, I’m afraid, will have to wait for another day…) Do what you like with your body, so it is said – once it’s dead, I mean; let’s not revisit the errors of the Corinthian believers – it certainly will not affect how God deals with you at the resurrection.
For others, however, what we do with our dead is hugely important. I learned that lesson keenly in Kenya, when dancing at a memorial service round the grave of one of the founders of the Holy Spirit Church of East Africa. I was not used to seeing people buried in their children’s garden, and asked if that was normal. So far, so good. The problems started when my turn came to answer the question of what we usually do with our dead. Burying them round – or even in – the church building was deemed most strange, though not met with the same horror as the idea of burning them and keeping the ashes in a jar on the mantlepiece. Never, ever say that in Africa, unless you want to be seen as the perpetrator of some very strong magic indeed…
Burial certainly was the norm in Israel, and as such references in Scripture are common. Burial is essentially taken for granted, though no theological weight is attached to this; it is just what you do. Amongst other clues to Diaspora Israelite practices (look for the bit about the fish liver and the demon, if you are interested…), the deuterocanonical book of Tobit shows how the hero of the same name risked his life to bury the dead amongst his people killed by Sennacherib:
Whenever I saw that the dead body of one of my people had been thrown outside the city wall, I gave it a decent burial.
But how does Jewish practice become normative for us? Are we required to follow such customs? And if so, would this apply to other customs too?
Nowhere in Scripture are we told that burial is the only “right” way of dealing with dead bodies. Nowhere are other means condemned. Theologically, there is also no reason to believe that resurrection needs the original body to be intact. Whether eaten by worms and bacteria on land or consumed by fish in the sea, the organic matter of a body eventually rejoins creation. In the end, all flesh returns to the dust from which it was created; some means, such as cremation, simply accelerate the process. And ultimately, as Peter tells us, whether when the sun turns supernova and expands to beyond the orbit of Mars or before, the whole lot will “be destroyed by fire” (2 Peter 3:7). To suggest that God is unable to provide resurrection bodies for those who were not placed whole into the earth is simply short-sighted.
So, what should we do with our dead? Once again we find ourselves at that subtle place of the meeting of faith and culture. In some places the ground is frozen too hard to dig graves. Others do not have enough wood to burn bodies. Some do not wish to contaminate the ground with death and prefer to feed the vultures. Burial at sea, joining those already in “Davy Jones’ locker”, is most natural for some maritime peoples. A funeral is a communal rite of passage that marks transition for those that are left; it does not determine the eternal future of the one who has departed. A burial site may serve to perpetuate the memory of the person in the community, but there are plenty of other ways of achieving the same aim that work in different societies around the world. As Christ enters a culture, the hope that we have in him can be conveyed alongside all of these culturally appropriate means of celebrating a person’s life and remembering them in their death.
So yes, please do sign up to become an organ donor. It won’t kill you, but if something else does, you will make someone else’s life a whole lot better.
PS. For those not familiar with Ilkley Moor (where the ducks fly backwards / play football / wear trousers), please do visit http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/On_Ilkla_Moor_Baht_’at to understand what otherwise must seem a very peculiar title for this post :-)