Kee Tetze: On the dignity of the human body in death

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Kee Tetze

Deuteronomy 21:10-25:19

Isaiah 54:1-10

As the ultimate indignity, after capital punishment, the authorities can put the body on long-term display. The corpse serves as a trophy, hanging to celebrate "our" success at defeating an enemy, or perhaps as an object of ridicule, hanging to allow "us" to mock the executed criminal without fear. Thus the Philistines fixed the corpse of King Saul to the wall of Beit Shan (I Samuel 31:10).

The Romans so often left the victims of crucifixion on the cross that the Talmud, in its list of the laws of mourning, outlines special rules for relatives of the crucified (Semahot 2:11). In England, as the Encyclopedia Britannica delicately puts it, after hanging, "…the corpse was allowed to remain in a public place as a warning to evildoers."

The Torah explicitly forbids this practice: "If there should be a man deserving the judgment of death, and you should execute him, and hang him on a pole, you shall not leave his body overnight on the pole, but you shall surely bury him on that day, for a hanging person is a curse of God, and you shall not defile the land which the Lord your God gives to you as an inheritance" (Deut. 21:22-23).

Rabbi Meir used to explain this law with a parable: Suppose there were identical twin brothers, one of whom became king of the world, the other fell in with armed robbers. When the armed robber was caught and crucified, it would seem to passers-by that the king had been crucified (Tosefta Sanhedrin 9:7). Displaying the criminal overnight amounts to a "curse of God" because, in some mysterious sense, each human represents "the image of God" (Gen. 1:27; 9:6).

We can think about the prohibition of displaying the corpse as a warning against worse desecrations. In "Night," Elie Wiesel wrote of the inmates of a Nazi camp being forced to watch the slow hanging of a little boy.

One man asks, "Where is God now?" Surely Wiesel had Rabbi Meir's parable in mind when he wrote the answer: "Where is He? Here He is — He is hanging here on this gallows…"

The Torah forbids the display of the corpse as a curse of God which defiles the land. The sadistic murder of an innocent child, of a million innocent children, defiles the land and dishonors the Creator.

The prohibition against displaying a corpse has relevance to funeral etiquette. If the most hated, despised or feared criminal deserves prompt burial, certainly an ordinary person deserves no less. So, according to Jewish ritual, when anyone dies, the relatives arrange to bury the body without undue delay. We do not prepare the body for viewing, not even of a respectful sort; we do not cremate. We simply follow the biblical command, "you shall surely bury him."

The prohibition has relevance to medical questions. Though medical researchers have performed autopsies for centuries, if not millennia, rabbinic discussion of the guidelines for medical autopsies date back to a specific case that occurred less than 300 years ago.

The rabbis in London disagreed about whether to permit a postmortem operation on a patient who had died after an operation. They sent their dispute to Rabbi Yehezkiel Landau (Noda BeYehudah 2, YD 210), who tried to formulate guidelines for medical autopsies.

Rabbi Landau ruled that the case depended on whether any current patients stood to benefit from the information obtained. He endeavored to balance the medical needs of other patients with the prompt and dignified burial of the deceased. Too strict a rule would endanger current patients; too lenient would invite doctors to perform autopsies on nearly every body, with a remote hope of benefiting some theoretical patients in the future.

Some later rabbis have used Rabbi Landau's guidelines to permit organ transplants. The potential organ recipient already experiences life-threatening illness, which only a transplant can alleviate. We have an obligation to respect the corpse of the organ donor, but the vital need of a live patient overrides.

In punishing criminals, in conducting funerals, in medical research, we ought to care for the dignity of the human body, a reflection of the dignity of God.