Our latest Catholic Q&A question comes from a long-time reader today via her children, who have asked a serious question about Church teaching as it relates to the treatment of the bodies of persons who have left this earthly life. The question, however, came from a uniquely East Tennessee perspective:
Is it okay for a Catholic to donate their body to the UT Body Farm, presuming that once Dr. Bass is done with it, whatever remains will be returned to the family?
If you aren’t from East Tennessee or you just don’t know, Dr. William M. Bass is the founder of that institution known locally as “the Body Farm,” a place where the bodies of people who have donated their remains, once they have passed this mortal coil, for the purposes of scientific research are kept and are researched upon in various ways. Father Christian Mathis, the co-writer of this blog and author of Blessed Is the Kingdom, along with Knoxville radio personality and reporter Frank Murphy recorded a couple of podcasts with Dr. Bass that are well worth listening to. Answering this question first requires asking another question:
Can a Catholic donate their body for scientific research after they’ve left this earthly life?
The “really short” answer to that is “yes,” but as with many Church teachings, the answer is not as simple as yes or no, there are what we might call some caveats to saying “yes” to giving one’s body to research. Pope Pius XII famously gave an address to a group of eye specialists in 1956, as referenced in an article by William E. May of the Catholic University of America. The then-Pontiff said at that time:
“The public must be educated. It must be explained with intelligence and respect that to consent explicitly or tacitly to serious damage to the integrity of the corpse in the interest of those who are suffering, is no violation of the reverence due to the dead.”
While Pope Pius’ words do not speak of the donation of the entire corpse to the research of science, we can see where this would be allowed provided the conditions laid down by the Church are met. What might those conditions be? As is often the case, the Catechism of the Catholic Church provides us with some insight in (2301):
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.
So cremation is permitted by the Church (although it seems that she still prefers, or seems to prefer traditional burial, as we’ll see in a moment, but there is no rule which mandates it), which is how some researchers deal with human remains after research is complete. Further, the CCC says a few paragraphs earlier in 2292:
Scientific, medical, or psychological experiments on human individuals or groups can contribute to healing the sick and the advancement of public health.
1 Christ’s faithful who have died are to be given a Church funeral according to the norms of law.
2 Church funerals are to be celebrated according to the norms of the liturgical books. In these funeral rites the Church prays for the spiritual support of the dead, it honours their bodies, and at the same time it brings to the living the comfort of hope.
3 The Church earnestly recommends that the pious custom of burial be retained; but it does not forbid cremation, unless this is chosen for reasons which are contrary to Christian teaching.
Regarding the burial of the dead, Canon 1180 has this to say:
1 If a parish has its own cemetery, the deceased faithful are to be buried there, unless another cemetery has lawfully been chosen by the deceased person, or by those in charge of that person’s burial.
2 All may, however, choose their cemetery of burial unless prohibited by law from doing so.
A person has the right to choose their place of burial, but the Church wants remains to be interred, which is why some parishes that have no cemetery have columbariums with cremains. Many people are choosing to donate their bodies to science for legitimate and just reasons of scientific research, and some dioceses have come up with guidelines for donating your body to science. A couple of years ago, Father Brian Mullady, OP, wrote about what some of these guidelines entail in a short answer in Homiletic and Pastoral Review.
Father Leo Walsh, S.T.D. at Busted Halo points out that you can donate your body to scientific research since the the Vigil and Funeral/Memorial Mass can take place with or without your body.
However, unless the people at the University of Tennessee Forensic Anthropology Center (i.e. “the Body Farm”) are willing to make arrangements for the final cremation or burial of your skeletal remains in accord with your faith as a Catholic, you’ll have to donate your body to another scientific facility rather than the University of Tennessee if that’s what you may wish. The reason is because burial of skeletal or cremated remains after research is not in keeping with the Forensic Anthropology Center’s outlined current policies:
Once the body is skeletonized, we recover the skeletal remains and clean them further. The cleaned bones are accessioned into the Bass Donated Skeletal Collection and are labeled with the identifying number. At this step, the remains are inventoried, measured and other data are collected. Once in the collection, all skeletal remains are utilized by researchers from varying academic and medico-legal institutions.
However, the “Body Farm” does say “we will attempt to honor any special requests within reason,” so before you write them off as a scientific donation option completely, you might consider contacting them if you have an interest in their program to see if there is any way that they may be able to use your remains for research and still honor the beliefs and requirements of your Catholic faith.
As usual, insightful comments and clarifications of Church teaching are welcomed from our diocesan clergy, especially in answering an important question such as this one. Further, if anyone from the University of Tennessee Forensic Anthropology Center wishes to comment or clarify regarding their policies and how those policies might impact the treatment of the remains of a Catholic which might come to their facility, that is most certainly welcomed.
Remember that to bury the dead is one of the Corporal Works of Mercy (cf. Tobit 1:17-19), and this is the chief reason why the Church takes such an interest in what happens to the remains of someone who has entered Eternal Life. We believe, in the words of Our Savior Christ himself, that “he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day.” (cf. Jn. 6:54) I pray this answer has been at least somewhat helpful. Remember, Jesus loves you, and we do too. Pax Domini sit semper vobiscum.