Contemporary Issues in Death, Burial, and Mourning

Multifaith Families

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Jewish tradition forbids autopsies in a general way on the grounds that the body is sacred. However, they are permitted in two specific cases: where the law requires it, or if it could help others who are immediately suffering from the same disease or condition. Given the realities of modern communication, it is more and more the case that an autopsy will in fact be of immediate use to another individual facing death.

Organ donation, long regarded as mutilation of the body, is understood by most contemporary authorities as permissible because it brings honor to the dead by bringing heal­ing to the living. Though some traditional authorities still forbid it, many argue that organ donation is affirmatively a mitzvah--a positive obligation--to donate organs or tissues for lifesaving purposes. Still, the belief that organ donation is forbidden by Jewish law has a tenacious hold on the minds of many Jews, traditional and liberal alike.

Suicide

Suicide is forbidden under Jewish law and is seen as a grave sin, because it abrogates for human beings the right to determine their own life span. Suicide also appears to be in defiance of the notion that our lives and our bodies are a divine gift, instead implying that we are entitled to exercise complete control over our own bodies and our own deaths.

Martyrdom--the taking of one's own life or allowing it to be taken rather than being forced to engage in "idol worship," for example--is the notable exception in Jewish law.

Jewish law takes suicide so seriously that it technically prohibits any rites of mourning for someone who has committed suicide, yet the general tendency of Jewish legal development over the ages has been to all but define true suicide out of existence. That is, an assumption is made, unless there is incontrovertable evidence to the contrary, that the individual who took her or his own life was not of sound mind--making space for full compassion for the deceased and for the family, and allowing the complete set of Jewish burial and mourning practices.

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