Venerating flesh

Rembrandt_Harmensz._van_Rijn_007

Rembrandt got it wrong

The Vatican has forbidden the sale of would-be saints’ body parts as relics. That momentous news set off a train of thought.

As attitudes to dead bodies go, I guess mine is—let’s be neutral here—unusual. Since 1976 I’ve been handling embalmed bodies, cutting them up, chopping off bits and pieces, sawing heads in half, removing brains, and so on and so forth.

Embalmed bodies don’t really look like human flesh, and they certainly don’t feel like it. Anatomy departments need embalming fluid that preserves for years—three is the normal legal limit—while funeral directors use a different chemical mix that preserves for only a few weeks, but gives a better cosmetic result.

When I was in anatomy we went to considerable trouble to show our appreciation to the families of those who left us their remains. We kept them informed, organised the funeral, and held memorial services to which relatives were invited. In Dublin most students were non-Christian, always keen to be involved. They and I were immensely grateful to the relatives.

In the 1990s there was controversy about body parts removed for future study and retained in hospital labs. After this came to light, funerals were held for the specimens—a liver, a heart, a lung or whatever—despite obsequies having already taken place for the people from whom the specimens had been removed. I pondered how big a body part had to be in order to necessitate a ceremony months or years later. If a separate funeral was required for a liver, say, then what about a sebaceous cyst that had been removed? Should a malignant tumour have a separate funeral? Is it necessary to have a funeral for my nail clippings? What about all the flakes of skin that fall off every day? Pus from an abscess?

Is it possible that compensation culture was rearing its head? Surely not. Why did clergy condone this nonsense? It’s not as if they get the fees—at least not in the C of E they don’t.

In any case these events led to a revision of regulations. Up to that time anatomical donations were governed by the 1832 Anatomy Act, brought in to deal with the Edinburgh body snatchers, so it was overdue.

Coincidentally, as the controversy was kicking off in Ireland and the UK, retained body parts of Thérèse of Lisieux were on a world tour, soon to land briefly in Dublin. I wondered how many of those who flocked to pay them homage were at the same time agitating for separate funerals and/or compensation for a relative’s retained organs. I wondered if they had ever given thought to what Thérèse’s parents would have wanted.

Let me be clear: I’m not knocking the veneration of body parts of saints. If such devotions help you in your passage through life, good for you. It occurs to me that I do it in a different way: I venerate dead people’s intellects and personalities by reading what they wrote.

When I last saw my father in the flesh in his coffin in 1986, the undertaker said to me that it was just a body, it wasn’t really him any more. A cadaver is just dead meat. When I last saw my elder son in the flesh in 2015, a certain finality hit me when I noted the circumferential skull incision through which his brain had been removed for post mortem examination. I don’t know if it was retained. They would have been welcome to take what they liked.

I write this on Christmas Eve. The incarnation is all about flesh. Look after it. Life is short.

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