We Have a Sacred Covenant With the Dead

Thomas R. Cole is a professor in the Institute for the Medical Humanities of the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston. He produced a recently released documentary, "Still Life: The Humanity of Anatomy," which will be screened at film festivals in April in Newport Beach and Durham, N.C.

As reports keep coming in about bodies decaying in the Georgia woods, people are shocked, hurt, enraged, confused, mystified.

This is more than an ordinary failure to fulfill contractual obligations. The scandal exposes the fraying of a sacred covenant between the living and the dead--a covenant that apparently can no longer be taken for granted.

We need to renew this covenant, yet it remains a taboo, a secret hiding place for avoiding the ancient Greek injunction: Know thyself.

We need to remember just how much we the living depend on the dead and how much the dead rely on the living.

The dead are part of our society--whether we believe it or not and whether we like it or not. They have claims on us. They hold the secrets of our past and represent our future.

Why else would Aeneas consult his father in the underworld or Dante need the guidance of Virgil in "The Divine Comedy" or Hamlet be motivated by his father's ghost?

The depth and fullness of our humanity can be read from the ways we relate to those who have gone before us and the ways we treat dead bodies.

My own experience as a humanist teaching medical students in the anatomy lab has taught me about these issues. And the news is encouraging.

The anatomy lab is one of the few places where the living learn directly and physically from the dead. Cadavers have a great deal more to teach than yielding up the physical structures of their bodies.

But we must learn to open our hearts and minds wider to receive their wisdom. The capacity to imagine and feel the reality of the unseen is central to a humane sensibility.

Strange as it may seem, the anatomy lab is a perfect place to cultivate this capacity. The cadaver is a trickster: It looks like a person, but there's no one there. Yet not long ago, there was. What do we owe that person?

In my teaching, I try to cut a path through the confusion and disorientation of this paradox, to help students explore, one step at a time, the emotional, moral and spiritual landscape of donation and dissection.

I ask students questions that make them uncomfortable: Was there a moment when you felt in your heart that this cadaver had once been a living person? Was there a moment when you realized that someday you will be as dead as your cadaver? Would you donate your own body? Imagine that you could talk to the person who donated the body you are dissecting. What would you want to say to them? What would you want to know?

In talking with people who will donate their bodies to science, I ask: What would you like to say to the students who will be dissecting your body? What would you want them to know about you? Why did you decide to donate your body? What would constitute disrespect of your body?

When students reflect on these questions, they are reviving a much-needed imaginative traffic between the living and the dead.

This is not easy work. But my experience is that wrestling with these questions helps students grasp the profound gift they have received, the collaboration they are engaged in across the border of life and death.

The result is often real growth in compassion and self-knowledge. When donors reflect on these questions, they may come to value their death as a final act of trust and service to the future.

This dialogue between donors and dissectors offers a window onto the larger issues raised in Georgia. The relationship between the living and the dead is like any other relationship. It withers without thoughtfulness, caring and acceptance of the vulnerability inherent in love.

The scandal is not only a matter of unethical business practices; it involves the violation of a sacred obligation to lay each person who dies to rest with dignity and in accordance with the wishes and beliefs of the individual and family.

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