ILLNESS RELATED to old age was an element common to the deaths of former Prime Minister AB Vajpayee, former Tamil Nadu chief minister M Karunanidhi and former Lok Sabha speaker Somnath Chatterjee — the three towering political personalities who passed away in August 2018. What was not common to them was the nature of their final journey, a euphemism employed to describe the disposing of the mortal remains — Vajpayee was cremated, Karunanidhi was buried, and Chatterjee ended up in the anatomy department of Kolkata’s Seth Sukhlal Karnani Memorial Hospital, better known as SSKM Hospital.

Cremation and burial scarcely ever involve a human choice, largely because these two methods of disposal of bodies have been culturally normalised through religious rituals constructed around them. These rituals render inevitable and, therefore, inescapable the reduction of a cadaver to ashes or letting worms eat into it. People know their families will organise their final journey in accordance with the practice followed by the community to which they belong.

Cremation and burial scarcely ever involve a human choice

By contrast, a person wishing to donate his or her body to a medical college has to make that choice in their lifetime. It can be an unsettling process – it requires the person to contemplate death and engage in an inner dialogue through which they reach the conclusion that the usefulness of donating their body outweighs the religiously sanctioned traditional practices of burial and cremation.

Yet the person cannot but imagine the different stages through which his or her body will pass in the anatomy department – it will be embalmed, de-skinned, the fibrous connective tissues removed before the muscles from bones will be separated. The gradual and controlled disintegration of the body watched and studied by students. Ultimately, he or she is reduced to so many separate bones, which are not even kept together on one shelf of the anatomy department.

Many find contemplating death, let alone the body’s disposal and its eventual change in form, upsetting.

Chatterjee decided to donate his body in 2000 — 18 years before his demise

Former LS speaker Somnath Chatterjee's mortal remains were taken to the anatomy department of Kolkata’s Seth Sukhlal Karnani Memorial Hospital. REUTERS
Former LS speaker Somnath Chatterjee's mortal remains were taken to the anatomy department of Kolkata’s Seth Sukhlal Karnani Memorial Hospital. REUTERS

And to think, Chatterjee decided to donate his body in 2000 — 18 years before his demise. As is the practice, he would have intimated his decision to SSKM Hospital, filled a form stating his intent, and submitted an affidavit to that effect signed by two witnesses, preferably family members. It would have likely involved Chatterjee discussing death with his family even when healthy.

“I have found that people who donate their bodies are individualistic,” said Dr Rajat Mitra, who heads Swanchetan Society for Mental Health, Delhi, and has counseled people who wish to donate their organs or bodies. “They have deeply thought of issues such as death and how the body is integrated with the Cosmos and Infinity. Their beliefs run deep.” Perhaps as deep as ideas spawned by culture and religion run in others.

Many find contemplating death, let alone the body’s disposal and its eventual change in form, upsetting

Chatterjee was a communist, for whom atheism would have been an inseparable element of his beliefs. Ideas of after-life, such as the link between karma and rebirth, heaven and hell, presumably had little or no pull on him. For the communist, the body dies, so does the mind and consciousness, which are aspects of the concept of immortal soul that exists in most religious thoughts. It is easy to believe in such theories, quite difficult to act on them, not least because of the pull traditional practices have on human beings.

It is indeed not surprising to find many Communists on the list of body donors, a fact which became public on the death of former West Bengal Chief Minister Jyoti Basu, who too was wheeled into SKMM Hospital in 2010. Communist leaders who have volunteered to donate their bodies include Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, Biman Bose, Shyamal Chakraborty, Surjya Kant Mishra, among others.

It is one thing to rationally reject religion. It is quite another to overcome the instinctive attachment to one’s body and fear of death. At times, a person might be willing to donate his or her body, but their children oppose this decision. This has been the experience of Sunayana Singh, CEO of Organ India, which seeks to create an ecosystem to facilitate organ donations. Her mother’s friend, a 92-year-old lady, was eager to donate her body for medical science and even secured a form to register as a donor. But her children vetoed her decision.

Yet, as a general rule, the less religiously inclined a person, the more likely he or she would be to donate their body. This was the finding of a 2010 Netherlands study that was conducted to fathom the motivation of people who had registered with the department of anatomy of the University Medical Centre of Groningen to donate their bodies. Seventy-nine per cent of them were not affiliated to a church, against the national average of 58 percent of the country’s population being church members.

Not all atheists and communists volunteer to donate their bodies.  Karunanidhi was an atheist – he was buried. So was Jawaharlal Nehru, but he wanted his ashes to be strewn all over India. “Though he did not believe in religion, he was spiritual in a philosophical sense. He got his ashes strewn in order to mingle with the soil of India,” said Mitra.

Religion need not always be a barrier to body donation

Religion, however, need not always be a barrier to body donation. “I know of two Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh persons who have donated their bodies,” said Singh. Obviously all RSS activists are not religious – for instance, BJP leader LK Advani, once an RSS pracharak or full-time worker, is not.

Singh cited the example of the two RSS men to make a larger point – that a deeply religious India has been witnessing a sharp spurt in the number of body donors. The sheer volume of inquiries had Organ India map the entire country, listing medical colleges and the names and numbers of their staff who could be contacted for body donation.

In fact, religion can be tapped to inspire people to donate their bodies or organs, said Dr Saurabh Sharma, project manager at Organ India. He cited the Hindu myth of Dadhichi Rishi to make his point.

According to it, Indra, the king of devas, was expelled from his kingdom by the asura Vritra, who could not be defeated as he was invulnerable to any weapons. In desperation, Indra turned to Vishnu, who said only a weapon made of Dadhichi’s bones could slay Vritra. Indra approached Dadhichi, who went into a deep meditative state to drive out the life-force from his body. Indra then fashioned the weapon Vajra from Dadhichi’s bones, slew Vritra and won back his kingdom.

This myth has been interpreted to convey that Dadhichi donated his body and bones for the greater good. It can be tapped to wean away   Hindus from the idea that if they were to donate their bodies they would not be able to attain moksha. “This is why many body donation organisations are named after Dadhichi,” said Dr Sharma.

It is far easier to identify reasons why people don’t agree to donate their bodies than it is to fathom why they do. This is because there need not be a single factor behind a person’s decision to donate his or her body. It was to understand better the complexities of motivation that the 2010 Netherlands study was designed to elicit multiple responses from those registered with the anatomy department of University Medical Centre of Groningen.

It does appear that altruism is a principal motivating factor behind body donations

The most popular reason cited for donation was “usefulness after death” – 93 percent; the second most was “expression of gratitude” to medical science – 49 percent; these were likely people who benefitted from healthcare. Only 15 percent people cited negative reasons, such as their distaste for death rituals and ceremonies, or their fear of being burnt or buried, or because they did not want to be a burden on their families. One respondent in his answer said he did not want to give the opportunity to funeral professionals to earn money out of his death!

It does appear that altruism is a principal motivating factor behind body donations. But altruism isn’t always selfless. People can resort to altruism because it enhances their status or is a style statement. “There could be a dark side to the decision to give your body away,” said a Delhi-based psychoanalyst who did not wish to be named. “There is a parallel between a person who is inspired to donate his body for medical science and the soldier who is willing to offer his body for the nation.”

What the psychoanalyst means is that both the body donor and the soldier could be motivated by publicity campaigns that highlight their decision as an act of greatness and an opportunity to achieve immortality. Just as the soldier is said to live through the nation that survives because of his martyrdom, so does the donor who on his or her death continues to live in the body of another person. Or whose cadaver helps enhance the skills of medical science students.

Altruism, selfless or egoistical, does not diminish the significance that body donation has for medical science and the people at large. For instance, when the body of Chatterjee was taken to SSKM Hospital, a part of his skin was grafted on a patient with burn injuries. In death, Chatterjee and Basu were more useful to society than Vajpayee and Karunanidhi.

— All photos courtesy Reuters

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