Page 6, 9th February 2001

9th February 2001
Page 6
Page 6, 9th February 2001 — Respecting our mortal remains

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Locations: Paris


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Respecting our mortal remains

pLENTy OF Christians don't give a jot what happens to their bodies after death. "They can feed my remains to the cats for all I care," is a not untypical reaction. A dead body is only a cadaver it is the shell of the person, whose soul has now moved elsewhere. So why all the fuss about doctors cannibalising the remains of dead babies? Post-mortems are routine where an unusual illness has killed the patient.

Historically, the Christian Church did not oppose the dissection of the human body, which first began in Bologna in Italy in 1315, although the religious authorities insisted on a "decent burial" for the remains, eventually. Morbid anatomy — post-mortem dissection — was a vital tool in medical progress. But the practice began to attract some opprobrium in the 19th century when the criminals Burke and Hare began killing people in the 1820s so as to sell their anatomies to medical research.

The United Kingdom passed a law regulating medical research on corpses in 1832, but significantly, restricted the practice to the bodies of "paupers" and "friendless persons", underlining the notion that only those at the margins of societies would have their corpses probed after death. The increase of bars and locks over graves in the Victorian period also showed that families feared doctors, or their assistants, might resort to graverobbing.

So, although Christianity did not condemn post-mortem work, there were always anxieties that the dead should be respected, and that their bodies should not be violated. This anxiety has increased in recent times, and some commentators, such as the medical writer Dr Michael Fitzpatrick attribute this to the increase in secularisation. It is because there is less emphasis today on the importance of the soul, Dr Fitzpatrick has written in his book, The Tyranny of Health, that we place so much more importance on the body, and this now continues after death. Fussing about the fate of a corpse is secular, even pagan. rather than Christian, he claims.

I think there is also another agenda, too: public mistrust in the ethics of doctors and in their lack of sensitivities. Professor Dick Van Velzen, the Dutch pathologist indicted for illegally stripping the organs of dead babies at Alder Hey hospital in Liverpool, was described as a cold, arrogant doctor with scant concern for the feelings of the bereaved.

The Spectator called him a "ghoul", for keeping the severed head of a dead baby in a bottle. The eyes of aborted babies were left lying around carelessly, said the Redfern Report (the Government's damning report of these abuses) and 100,000 organs and spare parts were stockpiled, in some cases without the knowledge or the consent of the bereaved.

Most people are not against constructive post-mortem, and there is quite widespread support for organ donation. But people worry that doctors, if not regulated properly, might abuse their powers. And with reason. Nineteenthcentury literature often portrays the doctor as a "mad scientist" type — Dr Franken

stein, or Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde — who will go to any lengths to perform his crazed experiments. In the 20th century, this horror came to full reality in the case of the Nazi doctors who collaborated with Joseph Mengele at Auschwitz.

The Nazis had no trouble finding doctors eager to work on the most cruel possible experiments on living subjects — all the more so, interestingly, because Hitler, an animal-lover, had banned vivisesction on animals.

Robert Jay Lifton's book The Nazi Doctors is a terrifying study of just what the Nazi doctors did, and perhaps the most awful part of it is that some of them thought they were doing good work. Medically, if you ignore the ethics of it, this is true.

Mengele did some useful research on the cleft palate, and knowledge of cervical cancer was advanced in Nazi medical laboratories. This is not Gothic horror fantasy but actual history in our time. More recently, there have been serial killer doctors such as Harold Shipman adorning the news pages.

The reaction to the Alder Hey report has produced a new wave of shroud-waving by medics, issuing threats that patients will die if the supply of organs dries up. But what this scandal underlines is actually the importance of medical ethics, of doctors treating patients and their families respectfully.

The dead body is "only" a corpse, but it lived as the temple of the Holy Spirit and should be respected for this reason, as well as for reasons of family sensibilities.

I ATTENDED Mass at Notre Dame in Paris last Sunday, which was wonderful. Sunday Masses are packed —the most popular being the 10.30 and the 11.30, when the extraordinary organ is played at full swell.

Notre Dame is both an aesthetic and a spiritual experience: and aesthetics can illuminate spirituality. To see the light come through the stunning stained-glass windows while the gospel is spoken is to experience the gospel at a number of levels.

Tourists are kept outside a barrier while Mass is being said, and they gawp and take flashlight pictures. This adds to, rather than diminishes, the sense of occasion. "Hey, guys, something important is going on here," one says to another. You bet.

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