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Why I’ll forgo the big-time funeral and donate my remains to science

(RNS) My decision is a bit in keeping with Jewish traditional teachings about what to do with bodies. And some not in such keeping. Which, given my basic attitude as a Jewish agnostic, probably is consistent.

People put stones on top of a tomb during a funeral for the remains of Holocaust victims in the Jewish cemetery in Budapest, Hungary, on April 15, 2016.  Photo courtesy of Reuters/Laszlo Balogh

(RNS) I’ve signed the paperwork for what will happen with my remains once I hit the Egress.

No real rush, I’ll admit. My brain cancer, glioblastoma, will likely take me out, but not this week or this month, or even this year.

My latest prognosis pushes it into 2018, in fact, though. And it’s far from written in stone. But it has pushed me to make some decisions a bit faster than I’d considered before my diagnosis almost four months ago.

I figure I won’t really care what gets done with my physical stuff after I die. So I’m donating it to a local teaching hospital to use to help teach med students.

Given my interesting lifetime of medical issues, it should be a fascinating exploration for them. And given my diabetes, three cancers and what will have been a recent series of cancer treatments, it’s unlikely any of my parts would be suitable for organ donation.

I’ve wanted this for a while. I’ve been to enough big-time funerals that I found appalling. Hideously expensive coffins. Useless embalming. Makeup on the dead face to make it viewable.

I don’t condemn any of that for those who find it comforting. But it ain’t for me. (And did I say expensive?)

My decision is a bit in keeping with Jewish traditional teachings about what to do with bodies. And some not in such keeping. Which, given my basic attitude as a Jewish agnostic, probably is consistent.

My remains will be used for education for a while, then cremated and returned to a designated member of my family for them to do what they will with it. (My favorite example is a member of the folk group The Weavers choosing to have his ashes used in compost to grow tomatoes and such. But I’ll leave that decision to whoever gets my stuff.)

Not having the complex and expensive funeral really does match Orthodox Jewish tradition. Here’s what a New York City funeral chapel has on its website:

“Because a Jewish funeral has profound religious significance, Jewish funerals avoid ostentation; family and visitors reflect in dress and deportment the solemnity of the occasion; embalming and viewing are avoided; music and flowers are rarely used; and interment takes place as soon as possible after death.”

The body is supposed to be washed and wrapped in white linen right after death. Put in a plain wooden casket that is closed. There’s even a suggestion there be holes in the bottom of the casket, suitable for rapid natural decomposition. And put in the ground as quickly as possible. A day or two, unless there is some highly unusual reason the fast funeral can’t happen.

I’m not going for the fast burial. But I surely am asking for a rapid removal of my remaining parts. (Which is, ahem, free.)

The website Chabad is more specifically Orthodox. And includes a few things I’m not following.

“Cremation is explicitly forbidden according to all authentic Jewish opinions and there are never any circumstances where it is permitted. Jewish law considers cremation as pure idol worship, and as ‘going in the ways of the gentiles.’ Any instructions to be cremated must be ignored without feelings of guilt or regret.”

With all due respect, I’ll pass on that. Orthodox Judaism believes that the coming of the messiah will trigger physical resurrection of all Jews. Apparently they figure that God will have no trouble with totally decomposed bodies but won’t be able to handle ashes? Meh, says I. Besides, if ashes can’t be used, there are millions of Holocaust victims in trouble.

There’s one other Jewish tradition that I think my choice aims at. Here’s another quote from the Chabad site:

“One is obligated to violate any Torah precept in order to save a life. This is true even if there is only a remote chance that this act will save a life, and even if this act will not save a life, but only momentarily lengthen the life of a terminally ill individual.”

I think that getting medical students properly educated contributes to how well they will do treating patients. Will rummaging around in my not-exactly-standard innards help some young doctor in the future? Maybe so.

I’d say it’s worth the effort. After all, I’m not going to need those parts. And it makes me smile a bit to think that my last call will benefit the world. Even a little.

(Jeffrey Weiss is a longtime reporter who covered religion, faith and morality issues for more than a decade. He writes about beliefs and dying in the “My Way to the Egress column” at RNS)