Columns Jeffrey Weiss: My Way to the Egress Opinion

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

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)

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  • Just one question (okay, maybe two).

    1. What is a “Jewish agnostic”?

    2. How can any person remain agnostic when there are so many people, (both Jewish and Non-Jewish, both near and far), whose lives and words sincerely reflect the existence and love of God?

  • 1) someone culturally Jewish, but who remains open on the question of god.
    2) because there are so many people– no names, please– whose lives and words sincerely don’t reflect the existence, let alone the love, of god.

  • I’m very sorry to hear you are ill. I’m doing the same thing you are. I would like my body to be donated to science. I have no interest in funerals, burials, or anything of the sort. If some of my pals want to get together and raise a glass in my memory, fine by me, but that’s entirely up to them. And obviously, at that point, I won’t care either way.

  • Sincere thanks for responding, Ben. Notes:

    1. You said, “…but who remains open on the question of God.” But what does that line really mean in the real world? Is it just a convenient excuse / sound-bite?
    Does that line amount to mere fence-sitting, or does it mean a person seriously spending time and heartfelt consideration on actually **resolving** the question of God?

    2. You said, “so many people…whose lives and words sincerely don’t reflect (the existence & love of God)…”
    But your own words betray you, for your line silently concedes that there exists at least some people who DO sincetely reflect the existence & love of God. It’s okay if you don’t count me among them; the point is that you’ve seen, heard, or met OTHERS in your life who did.
    So why remain agnostic or atheist?

  • 1) it means whatever THEY think it means, not what you OR I think it means. You and I both have our answers, arrived at through our own lives, through our own processes and experiences.

    2) there exist SOME people who do sincerely reflect the love of THE GOD THAT THEY BELIEVE IN. But that’s because they are good people, not because they believe in god. People that fly airplanes into buildings also believe in god. People that owned slaves also believed in god. As I have often said, the way someone reads the Bible is determined by the kind of person they are, and not the other way around.

    And what you didn’t mention 3) that’s why I am a kind, nice, honest person, well liked and respected within my community. I didn’t need god for that, and though you may believe it has something to do with god, I don’t. I just believe that good is better than evil because it’s Nicer. And I act accordingly.

  • Well, if one is obligated to do everything possible to save life, brain cancers respond nicely to marijuana. It seems I read somewhere that this has been known since the 1970’s, but couldn’t find the article. Still, here’s a popular write-up from HuffPo in 2014: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/11/18/marijuana-brain-cancer_n_6181060.html

    The other thing which is worth a shot if not yet tried is resetting the body’s own defenses with a three day fast: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/science/2016/03/12/fasting-for-three-days-can-regenerate-entire-immune-system-study/ and https://news.usc.edu/63669/fasting-triggers-stem-cell-regeneration-of-damaged-old-immune-system/

    “In the first evidence of a natural intervention triggering stem cell-based regeneration of an organ or system, a study in the June 5 issue of the Cell Stem Cell shows that cycles of prolonged fasting not only protect against immune system damage — a major side effect of chemotherapy — but also induce immune system regeneration, shifting stem cells from a dormant state to a state of self-renewal.” (From 2nd link on this topic)

  • Thank you for this timely and courageous article. My father passed two years ago and donated his body. Besides advancing science, his decision made his death and what follows for the family so much easier. No needless outrageously expensive casket, and vault for the said casket at the cemetery. Modern funeral homes are a colossal scam that play on grief and sadness.
    I wish you the very best.

  • 1) So far, I haven’t attempted to offer any answers as to what the label “Jewish Agnostic” actually means.
    YOU chose to offer an answer to that question, which I do appreciate, but there’s nothing improper about sincerely asking rational questions of your response. Meanwhile still waiting on the writer’s answer.

    2 & 3) So you indeed concede that some people DO reflect the existence and love of God, but as an atheist you choose to **arbitrarily** deny that an actual God is ultimately the Cause of what you’ve already seen in their lives and words. (Shoot, you won’t even thank God for the favorable public reputation you say you have within your community. Good grief!!)

    But not every atheist / agnostic is like that, Ben, and your story could be different too. To borrow from what you said earlier, many folks “are open on the question of God” even though they say “I’m atheist / agnostic.” Opportunities abound for real exploration and discovery.

  • Antisemites never make the distinction between those who practice Judaism and those who are born to parents who do/did. To them Jewish is a race or ethnicity. So there is no point in trying to distinguish themselves on the basis of belief. The haters are still going to hate.

  • “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.”

    Think about what is being said.

    Ariel Sharon was once the prime minister of Israel. He suffered a massive stroke in 2006 and never regained consciousness. He died in 2014. For eight years or so he “lived” in a vegetative state. This is not living. It is a gross waste of hospital space and medical talent, assets which could have been better used to serve the living, the really living. You can bet Sharon saw no purpose in such a flavorless existence.

  • I chose my words fairly carefully, but apparently not carefully enough.

    I didn’t say that their lovingness reflects the existence of god, but of the love of the god that they believe in. And then indicated that it was not because of the actual existence of that god, but because they are nice people.

    I could do the same thing as you just did. The lovingness of a Hindu reflects the existence of the Hindu gods, not the Jewish god or the Christian god. Therefore, the Christian god doesn’t exist.

    I am not, strictly speaking, an atheist. Certainly not an antitheist, nor an agnostic. I’m an it-doesn’t-matterist. I know it matters to you, and to other believers, and to the militantly anti-theistic. But not to me.

  • 1) I would pretty much agree with your statement.
    2) 1st sentence-agree.
    2nd sentence-I was standing in a room making sure it was in order and good repair, ready to serve its purpose while I read your comment here. The room serves AA and NA groups 6 days a week. I hear you, but, I disagree, please hear my tone when I say I disagree. The disagreement I have is more of a humble type. You use examples of slave owners and people who fly planes planes into buildings to make the point of your sentence. I agree with what you say about the people you speak of, but, I believe there is a “changed group” of Bible believers.
    3) Sometimes people use belief to justify the logic of things like flying planes into buildings. Sometimes people use belief to overcome the logic that leads to things like addiction. Belief that justifies bad logic makes me appreciate agnostics. Thanks for how you usually post, it makes me think.

  • I have opted for a “green” burial (minus any parts that are of use to anyone). Cardboard casket and a tree planted instead of a marker. (I have stage 4 cancer but, since it is of the prostate variety and was found only three years ago at the earliest possible stage 4 diagnosis, there will be ample opportunity for something else to get me first).

    Anyone unwise enough to attend my wake will get this (written by “Cuttlefish)

    When we are dead, we’ll feed the worms
    And other stuff that writhes and squirms
    And if you cannot come to terms
    With that—well, use your head!

    There are no ifs nor ands nor buts:
    Bacteria within our guts
    Will start to eat us; that is what’s
    In store, once we are dead.

    Yes, life is short and full of toil,
    And when we’ve shuffled off this coil
    Our carcasses will start to spoil—
    There’s nothing wrong with that.

    Our share of fish or pigs or cows,
    And all the chicken time allows,
    Is done. It’s only fair that now’s
    The worms’ turn to get fat.

    Should we die young, or old and gray,
    The laws of nature we’ll obey
    And spend our heat in mere decay,
    Replenishing the Earth;

    “Three score and twelve” may be our years
    For love and laughter, hope and fears
    And then—mere smoke—life disappears;
    No heaven, no rebirth.

    And with no heaven up above
    Nor hell we ought be frightened of
    It’s best we fill our lives with love,
    With learning, and with fun!

    Don’t waste a lifetime while you wait
    For halo, wings, and pearly gate—
    This is your life, so get it straight:
    You only get the one!

    I’ll have no moment lost to prayer,
    To cleanse my soul and thus prepare
    For passage to… THERE’S NOTHING THERE!
    Those moments, all, are wasted!

    I’m only here a little time
    Before it’s bugs and worms and slime;
    I’ll eat and drink my life so I’m
    Delicious when I’m tasted!

  • No need to humbly disagree. Regular disagreement is just fine ?

    I do understand your point. ? But it more or less is my point as well, though what I am about to right is highly simplified.

    GOod people use their belief to justify the doing of good things. BAd people use their belief to justify doing bad things. My disagreements with people of faith are not usually about the faith, but about what they do with it. You’ll almost never find me disagreeing wth a Unitarian. But you will find me in vehement disagreement with people who say, “god says X, and you’d better agree or I’ll hurt you.”

    Thanks for your kind words. I do try to make people think. At least, that’s what I’m often accused of. ?

  • I consider myself a “Cultural Mormon,” although I prefer the one-time slur of “Jack Mormon,” since its use now galls the same Church that coined the term 100 years ago. My Mormon ancestry goes back to Joseph Smith and some of my male ancestors were ordained by Smith to the Mormon priesthood. I would not be alive if there had never been a Mormon Church, but like over half of my large extended family, I am Mormon in name only, keeping the cultural ties without the religious stuff. Being Jewish is so much more an ethnic experience, since they have held themselves apart for thousands of years, not just a century and a half, or so.

  • Regular disagreement would sound like shut the ?!&/-up a$$ hole. I’m doing much better now thanks to reactionary rehab.?

  • Some very thoughtful comments here, I would merely add that I think the pragmatic approach Mr. Weiss is taking with respect to his future remains is quite sound, though I would kindly suggest that he continue to explore a dialogue with those of a more spiritual mien with whom he is both acquainted and comfortable. There may yet be some insight or illumination that presently eludes him.

  • For anyone who believes the Bible is the inspired word of God, ashes should be kept together and not, “scattered to the wind,” as many seem to prefer these days.

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