Questions From Readers
▪ Is it fitting for a Christian to permit an autopsy on a relative?
The Bible does not directly comment on autopsy, but there are some relevant Biblical thoughts that a Christian can consider. Then a personal decision can be made in the light of such texts and the particulars of the given situation.
An autopsy is a surgical (dissection) examination of a corpse in order to determine the cause of death. It can also provide information about the effects or mechanism of disease. Some religions’ view of autopsies has been affected by unscriptural teachings. For example, a Catholic encyclopedia states: “The body of the deceased should be treated reverently as the former abode of his soul . . . It is destined to rise with its soul, during the general resurrection, into eternal life . . . There may be an interval between medical death and the soul’s departure.” However, the Bible shows that when a person (a living soul) dies, he becomes a dead soul. (Genesis 2:7; 7:21-23; Leviticus 21:1, 11) What about his body? Regarding both “the sons of mankind” and the “beasts,” we read: “They have all come to be from the dust, and they are all returning to the dust.” (Ecclesiastes 3:18-20) In the resurrection, God will not raise the body that has long since become mere dust, but he will provide a body as it pleases him.—See 1 Corinthians 15:38, 47, 48.
Another aspect of the Biblical view of the dead can be considered in connection with autopsy. God commanded Israel: “You must not make cuts in your flesh for a deceased soul, and you must not put tattoo marking upon yourselves. I am Jehovah.” (Leviticus 19:28; Deuteronomy 14:1, 2; Jeremiah 47:5; Micah 5:1) Yes, God’s people were not to imitate surrounding nations in mutilating their flesh as a sign of grief over the dead nor for other false religious reasons. This command must also have encouraged the Israelites to manifest respect for their bodies as God’s creations.—Psalm 100:3; 139:14; Job 10:8.
Christians likewise should have due respect for their lives and bodies, which they have dedicated to God. (Romans 12:1) Some have concluded that this respectful view of the body should shape their thinking about autopsies. They have felt that unless there was some compelling reason otherwise, they would prefer that the body of a beloved relative not be subjected to a postmortem dissection. They may know that in some places blood taken from cadavers has been used for transfusions or other purposes, of which they would want no part.*
Why, then, have some Christians permitted autopsies? They realize that the Bible does not pointedly comment on this medical procedure. They may also have noted that the Israelites in Egypt permitted the Egyptian physicians to embalm Jacob and Joseph, which likely involved surgical steps to remove internal organs. (Genesis 50:2, 3, 26) In certain cases today, the law of the land requires that an autopsy be performed. For example, if a young, healthy person dies of no apparent cause, a postmortem may be mandatory. Obviously, when the law demands an autopsy, Christians bear in mind the counsel to “be in subjection to the superior authorities.”—Romans 13:1, 7; Matthew 22:21.
Even in the case of a person who had been under a doctor’s care, and thus the likely cause of death is known, an autopsy may provide helpful information. Surviving children may want to know the precise cause so as to increase information about their family’s medical history. Such information could affect their own future life pattern or treatment. There are other reasons, too, why some have permitted an autopsy. A postmortem report documented by tissue studies might enable a family to qualify for survivors’ benefits, such as by providing proof of black-lung disease associated with coal mining. Some have even felt that an autopsy could increase their peace of mind by helping them understand what did or did not cause a loved one’s death. Persons outside the family might also be involved. The relatives might sincerely feel that permitting an autopsy might help a physician to understand the course of a disease, and thus he might be better equipped to treat others.
Consequently, it is appropriate for Christians to manifest respect for their bodies, but there are other factors that they can consider in deciding whether to permit an autopsy in a particular situation.
Concerning possible use of human body parts for transplant purposes, see The Watchtower of March 15, 1980, page 31.