Friday, 8 March 2013

The dignity of the dead

During my forensic rotation, I noticed something interesting during almost all cadaveric examinations: we talk to the dead. No, we don't exactly chat or discuss important world events---that would be a rather one-sided conversation---but we talk. We say things like "Excuse me, Sir / Ma'am" whenever we're about to do something that would normally be uncomfortable or embarrassing if the person was alive. Sometimes we even mumble "Dear Sir / Ma'am / Dik ("little brother or sister"), what happened to you?" whenever we see a particularly nasty death.

We are allowed to leave after the cause of death is known, and most students do leave, but I like to stay for awhile. I like to watch, and help with it whenever I can, the ending "ritual": all the organs are put back inside, wounds and incisions are sutured, the body is washed and dried, and finally a blanket is pulled over it.

There is a certain calm and comfort while doing all that. There is a sense of dignified conclusion to life when the now fragrant and clean body is blanketed with a fresh fabric. It feels like we're preparing this person to meet his Creator in a more appropriate manner, although we know, intellectually, that the soul does not need it.

So why do we talk to the dead, bathe him, clothe him, treat him with respect, even though the dead really won't complain if we instead step on him, piss on him, ridicule him, crudely throw him away?

Because we want to make sure that even in death, this person, this human being who was once breathing, eating, has hobbies, and was rejoiced over, missed and loved, still reflects the one thing he was created to be: Imago Dei.

This is something that God has written in our hearts so that we may know this without having to stop to think. Heck, we know this so well that it becomes difficult to articulate, but to challenge it seems ridiculous bordering on plain stupid. Noob please, we even have the entire Universal Declaration of Human Rights, for our unique rights are really a logical consequence of that dignity. This instinctive move to protect others' dignity can be traced back to the very beginning: since we are all images of God, our relationship to each other mirrors that of the Persons of the Trinity: by Love. Love conquers death. Even our limited kind of love attempts to mock death in the face by talking to the dead, bathing him, and clothing him as if the dead is merely sleeping. In the Christian faith, this "as if" is boldly confirmed and confessed, so the Christian has a special conviction that his works of charity for the dead are not wishful thinking, but truly has meaning.

Now, having said all this, I'm not advising to tearfully lament over a stranger's dead body before systematically measuring his wounds and tattoos with an ABFO ruler. But I would like to propose that whenever we work with the dead, we do so with the utmost realisation that:

  1. this person, body and soul, was created in the image of God Himself, hence his dignity;
  2. this person was created out of divine Love, hence his dignity;
  3. this was a person with intellect, with a sense of humour, with family and friends, and most importantly, with free will, hence his dignity;
  4. this was a person "called by grace to a covenant with his Creator" (CCC 357), which means he had a unique, special, personal relationship with God that no other creature has, hence his dignity;
  5. this body will someday be raised again, hence his dignity.
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"What made you establish man in so great a dignity? Certainly the incalculable love by which you have looked on your creature in yourself! You are taken with love for her; for by love indeed you created her, by love you have given her a being capable of tasting your eternal Good."
~St. Catherine of Siena

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