You will perhaps not be surprised to hear that I have never stood before a naked corpse and cut into its flesh with a sharp knife. That is, I have never participated in the dissection of a cadaver as is done as part of one’s medical education or at an autopsy, but I know a number of people who have done so. A deacon at our little church took part in such a procedure as part of his preparation to become a physician, and my youngest daughter palpated the tissues of such a cadaver as part of her continuing education as an RMT (or Registered Massage Therapist). For my part I am grateful that nothing like that formed part of my preparation to become a clergyman and that getting my M. Div. did not require anything more unusual than spending hours in the library basement reading Bible commentaries or trying to learn Greek.
We are much more squeamish in our culture than were those in previous generations. Not only have most of us never cut into a naked corpse, but we have probably never even seen one. In our day most people die in hospitals, and after they die a sheet is discreetly drawn over their faces and they quickly vanish into the hospital morgue in the basement. Assuming that they do not go directly from the morgue to the crematorium, the next time we see them is at the funeral home, where they have been cleaned, dressed, and prepared for “the viewing”—assuming of course that we see them at all and that the casket is not closed. Notice: all that has been left to us now is to stand back and “view”. The actual work of stripping and cleaning the corpse and then dressing it again (formerly in a garment called a shroud, now no longer used) is done by others, the paid professionals. In previous generations, it was the members of one’s own family that stripped, cleaned, and dressed the deceased family member (with gender appropriateness, of course). Now we have people for that. In my grandfather’s day, most people in the family would have seen a number of corpses in the course of growing up as older members died off and as infants died at childbirth or in infancy (happily a much rarer occurrence now). Today, with the change in funeral practices and the growing preference for “the closed casket”, it is possible to go through one’s whole life and never see a corpse—much less a naked one.
This means that the people now participating in a cadaver dissection can find the whole thing both traumatic and exciting by turns. The shock of course comes not simply from seeing a naked body. In this respect we are much more inured to the sight of nakedness than were our grandparents, especially if we watch Home Box Office. The shock comes from the prospect of taking a knife and cutting into the flesh. Usually such an act of violence only occurs on the street, and is followed by a visit from the police. But on the street or in the lab, the piercing of human flesh is still an act of violence—even though in the lab it is a good and necessary one.
For this reason it is helpful to pray before and after the act. (A brief liturgical rite is appended, written by request for my deacon during his time as med student.) The prayers are important, not so much for the soul of the deceased (who is past caring about his body), but for the soul of those doing the cutting. It is important for them to remind themselves of the fact that the corpse on the slab is not just a hunk of human meat, but someone’s son or daughter, father or mother, brother or sister. It is inert now, but not too long ago it moved and walked and danced, did crossword puzzles, laughed, hugged people, expressed liking for certain songs and dislike for other ones, had loud political opinions, ate pizza, and was in every way exactly like us—including possibly in his or her reaction to corpses lying on slabs. It had a name—usually, I am told, not shared with the med students out of respect for the deceased’s family. But it had one nonetheless, and all that went with it. If the deceased was a Christian, he or she was not simply someone else’s brother or sister, but our brother or sister as well, and a fellow member of the Body of Christ to which we belong.
For these reasons therefore we need to pray: we pray for the person’s soul and their eternal repose (as Orthodox do for all their dead); we pray and give thanks to God that the person or their family gave us the gift of their flesh so that we can increase our medical knowledge and skill, and we pray that we may use that gift well.
The case of the cadaver brings into high relief the sacredness of all human flesh. It is not just the soul that bears the image of God, but the totality of the human person—body as well as soul. This means that all human flesh has an innate dignity. We instinctively realize this. All societies feel repugnance at the thought of treating corpses with disrespect, and sometimes have laws against performing outrage on the bodies of the dead. At the very least all societies insist that the dead must be decently buried, so that leaving a corpse unburied is the ultimate act of disrespect and insult. What is less often realized in our society is that there are other ways of showing disrespect—or at least of failing to fully appreciate the sacredness of human flesh—other than outraging corpses or leaving them unburied. I refer to two things not often grouped together: pornography and tattooing.
The problematic nature of pornography is fairly clear, because it involves not only disrespect for the bodies viewed (usually of women), but also sin. The sin resides not simply in the act of lust, but also in the failure to recognize the sanctity of the flesh which is being commercialized and sold like so much meat. In other words, pornography also involves a kind of sacrilege.
The case of tattooing is very, very different from that of pornography, in that no such sin is involved. But in some cases (not all) we find a similar insensitivity to the sacredness of human flesh. I refer here to instances when large portions of a person’s body are given over to artwork, so that the whole body becomes a kind of living canvas. This is problematic, because usually the images portrayed are of less significance than the skin on which they are portrayed, so that the canvas has more significance than the artwork itself. It can be otherwise if what is portrayed is the Cross, or if the intent of the image or words is to glorify the Lord or to remind the person of God. Then the tattoo becomes a component in one’s self-offering. But in most cases the images or words of the tattoos have no such purpose and are of much less significance than the body of the person on which they are drawn. Human flesh is too important to be given over to such banal art. It would be like taking the Eucharistic bread and using it to stuff the Thanksgiving turkey, or taking the space available on an icon and using it to write one’s shopping list: the thing used is holier than the use to which it is put.
We live in very apocalyptic days, when our culture seems intent upon overturning many of the things that used to offer familiarity and sanity. The recognition that human flesh is sacred is one of these things. We may never stand before a cadaver in a lab. But we will all encounter human flesh, draped in varying degrees. We must strive to remember it is sacred if we are to stay more or less sane as the days grow ever darker.
Prayers for Use when Working with a Cadaver
Before beginning work, make the Sign of the Cross over the cadaver and then say:
Almighty Father, Maker of the souls and bodies of all men, give peace to the soul of the brother/ sister whose body lies before me, and grant that he/ she may have a reward from You for offering his/ her flesh to further the medical arts of men. Grant Your consolation also to his/ her family, and lead us all into Your eternal Kingdom that through Your mercy we may feast together at Your Table and praise You for the healing You offer to Your children, through Jesus Christ our Lord with whom You are blessed together with Your life-creating Spirit, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.
After concluding work, make the Sign of the Cross again over the cadaver, and say:
Lord Jesus Christ, Healer of our souls and bodies, I thank You for this opportunity to benefit from the sacrifice of the brother/ sister whose body lies before me. Fill me with reverence for all that You have made and grant that I may ever use the wisdom that I have gained today to ease the suffering of Your children and to glorify Your most holy Name, who live and reign, with the Father and the Holy Spirit, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.