The Body of Faith

I sat down across a table from the Shi’a Muslim imam as he offered me soda before starting the interview. Realizing my tendency to stereotype, I saw that he was not at all the person I had pictured while on the phone with him just days earlier. His face was clean-shaven, and he wore a white lab coat. When he had given me the address where we were to meet, I was happy to see that it was near the research hospital where I was working that summer. I just had not realized how close his location actually was. The imam— a genetics researcher—was located just a few streets away from my institution. I began asking my questions, and he graciously answered all of them.

My research project that summer was to investigate various religious stances on the autopsy. It is a sobering topic. Specifically, I conducted research from a pediatric oncology laboratory, and so my work was directly about the autopsy of children who had died from cancer.

I interviewed religious authority figures within Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Judaism, and, as I mentioned, Islam. I also spoke with parents who faced the question of whether or not they would allow an autopsy conducted on their deceased child. One might wonder why the institution I worked for wanted me to conduct this research. In order to study certain types of cancer in hopes of finding treatments, research facilities need samples: autopsies provide samples of the metastasized cancer cells. Autopsies, however, are in a major decline, and institutions want to know why. One major reason, they believe, might be religious objection.

The literature I found on the subject seemed straightforward. One article even had a neat table with major religions listed down one column and, in the next column, whether or not they allow autopsies. Feeling dismayed that the research had already been conducted, I kept searching and found that these religious views could never fit neatly into a table.

The first major religion I researched was Buddhism. Within Buddhism a deceased person should be left “undisturbed until three days after death” so that the soul may make its transition to the next life.1 If a Buddhist religious teacher determines that the soul has left the body, an autopsy may be allowed.2 The problem with these tidy doctrines is that they are not necessarily doctrines. In a religion that has existed for more than 2,500 years in dozens of countries, “no one tradition [has] clear doctrinal authority over the others,”3 which makes teachings within Buddhism general guidelines rather than universal doctrines.

The ensuing “constellation of practices and ideas related to medicine and the body”4 became clearer when I interviewed a Buddhist cleric. When I asked him about the three-day waiting period for the soul, he said that within his school of Jōdo Shinshū within the Mahayana branch of Buddhism, after a person has died, most followers do not believe in a “strict mind-body dualism,” but rather view the corpse as “simply the remains.” This surprising information made me heavily question categorization regarding Buddhism.

My questioning continued upon finding the Hindu attitudes toward the autopsy. I had sources explaining that autopsies are “disturbing to the still-aware soul,” and therefore an autopsy should not be performed unless the law requires it.5 Other sources explained that the “true self” is more powerful than anything medicine can throw its way; it cannot be “pierced, cut, or agitated.”6 Neither source revealed that opposing views within Hinduism exist.

My next venture was to research the Jewish perspective on the autopsy, which revealed a tension between two significant teachings. The first teaching relevant to my subject is called Pikuach Nefesh. Pikuach Nefesh teaches the responsibility to save a human life when at all possible. Since an autopsy to retrieve cancerous tissue may result in further research that produces new therapies, an autopsy seems in line with the teaching. However, another teaching relevant to my research is Kavod HaMet, which is a set of rules for respecting the dead. This set of rules includes burying the individual in entirety, including all organs and blood, and burying the individual as soon as one is able, both of which make an autopsy nearly impossible. Jews may weigh these two teachings—Pikuach Nefesh and Kavod HaMet—differently, resulting in opposing stances on the autopsy. How they are weighed could stem from which branch of Judaism the individual considers themselves to be a part of: Reform, Conservative, or Orthodox. Yet a myriad of other influences could also affect which teaching is elevated for an individual, making any categorization of the Jewish attitude toward autopsies suspect.

The imam also stressed the importance of a prompt burial as he explained the Shi’a stance on autopsies. He told me the body should be buried as soon as possible. My literature research informed me beforehand that, within Islam, autopsies are rarely permissible: “Islam teaches that a dead body must be treated with the utmost respect under all circumstances. This, in part, is why autopsies are usually not allowed unless absolutely required.”8 The imam explained to me what “absolutely required” entailed. He spoke of legal disputes and the risk of revenge killings, explaining that finding the cause of death through an autopsy frees some of suspected malice. When it came to an autopsy’s ability to increase medical knowledge, specifically for cancer patients, he answered that this area is “in discussion.” I wondered to myself at this moment if this answer might be the most appropriate answer for anyone attempting to fill out a chart for religious views on the autopsy. The topic is in discussion.

When it came time to research Christianity’s stance on the autopsy, I immediately felt overwhelmed. As a Christian, and thus having more knowledge about Christianity, I thought, But we are so diverse. Where do I get started? Thinking back, this was a humorous reaction, as I had, before my research, swiftly placed other religions neatly into categories.

I researched views within Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, and Protestantism, each of which held unique histories facing the topic of autopsies.

Within the Roman Catholic Church’s history, Pope Clement VI urged for more autopsies in order to find the cause of the plague.9

While the Eastern Church is not opposed to the autopsy, some branches require that the body not be dismembered.10

Protestantism, like other faiths, believes in familial autonomy for the refusal or acceptance of an autopsy.11

The stance within my Seventh-day Adventism, I learned from an Adventist administrator, is in line with the general Protestant stance. He told me that it is a “personal decision.” I knew, though, that with the vast differences within the Christian Church, I was oversimplifying by only dividing Christianity into its three main branches. Even within my own denomination, I thought, major items were currently under debate, as is a hallmark of most faith communities.

In an interview with an authority figure within the Church of Christ, Scientist, a denomination that normally does not seek medical intervention, I learned something surprising. He explained that an autopsy would be “perfectly acceptable.” Then, he continued, the family can find out “what the person was dealing with.” My categorizations of certain faiths, now within Christianity, were falling apart.

While knowing that oversimplifying, stereotyping, or false categorizations were all problematic within my research, I did not feel troubled until the research became personal. The trouble was foreshadowed on my first day. Sitting in my supervisor’s office, I asked for a list of religions he specifically wanted me to research. We were almost done with the list when he added, “And the Seventh-day Adventists. They’re weird.” Even with my efforts to hide my reaction, my face must have given it away, for he promptly asked, “What are you?” “Adventist,” I replied. He spoke eagerly of the benefits of vegetarianism and avoiding alcohol.

The literature on Adventism troubled me further. In one piece titled “Eye on Religion—Working With Seventh Day Adventists,” I read about my denomination from a respected and fairly recent medical journal. Perhaps I should have known from the start that I would question the article, since our usual hyphen and lowercase “d” were missing from the title of the church. The article addressed physicians, teaching that if one’s patient were “emotionally troubled,” there were three main categories that the Adventist most likely fell into: they have a “rigidity of thought pattern (i.e, in matter of diet or dress, etc.),” are dealing with “duplicity,” or have “guilt for departing from church culture norms and expectations.”12 I felt emotionally troubled while reading, and this feeling, I believe, was not owing to one of these three items. I felt I had been placed in a strange, poorly fitting box.

Beyond a doubt, I made my own errors when discussing particular religions. During my first interview, I asked a rabbi a question about his church. “It’s a synagogue,” he responded. I think again of the imam I interviewed, and his enthusiasm to answer my questions. In a religion highly scrutinized, stereotyped, and in some areas generally misunderstood, he saw the opportunity to speak.

My research that summer handed me a significant dose of humility in my knowledge of religions. If I did not want to be placed into ill-fitting boxes—or any box, for that matter—I ought not to do that to those around me. I began to understand the importance of religious literacy in regards to religious liberty. Having a greater understanding of the intricacies within religions makes us less likely to stereotype, offend, or possibly mistreat, and this goes beyond pediatric oncology research.

  1. S. J. Gordijn, J. J. Erwich, T. Y. Khong, “The Perinatal Autopsy: Pertinent Issues in Multicultural Western Europe,”European Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology Reproductive Biology 132 (2007): 3-7.
  2. Ibid .
  3. Principles of Health Care Ethics , 2nd ed. (West Sussex, U.K.: John Wiley and Sons, Ltd., 2007).
  4. Ibid.
  5. Gordijn, et al.
  6. C. S. Campbell, “Research on Human Tissue: Religious Perspectives,” commissioned paper, inResearch Involving Human Biological Materials: Ethical Issues and Policy Guidance, Report and Recommendations, vol.2 (Rockville, Md.: NBAC, 1999), pp. C1-C22.
  7. Gordijn, et al.
  8. M. L. Woll, D. B. Hinshaw, T. M. Pawlik, “Spirituality and Religion in the Care of Surgical Oncology Patients With Life-threatening or Advanced Illnesses,”Annals of Surgical Oncology 15 (2008):3048-3057.
  9. G.J. Davis and B.R. Peterson,“ Dilemmas and Solutions for the Pathologist and Clinician Encountering Religious Views of the Autopsy,”Southern Medical Journal 89 (1996): 1041-1044.
  10. Gordijn, et al.
  11. Campbell, Reseach on Human Tissue: Religious Perspectives.” In. Rockville: 2000:241
  12. Alan A. Nelson, “Eye on Religion—Working With Seventh Day Adventists,” Southern Medical Journal 100, no. 7 (July 2007): 758.

Article Author: Lauren Peterson

Lauren Peterson writes from Calhoun, Georgia.