Does Judaism Allow Autopsies?

Wednesday, March 3

Different cultures and religions have developed specific rituals and behaviors in relation to the subject of death. The passing of family members, friends, leaders, or peers, can be an emotional and difficult time to navigate for many. As a result, various traditions and precedents have formed to help individuals say goodbye to the deceased.

Holding funerals is the traditional way to honor individuals, allow for mourners to reflect on the deceased’s life, and move on from the grief. However, other death-related activities, like autopsies, are much more controversial. Specifically relating to Jewish traditions, the debate regarding the permissibility of autopsies has been ongoing for years. Before taking a stance on this issue, it is essential to understand the two opposing sides of the argument.

Some scholars hold that autopsies should be strictly forbidden due to interpretation of Jewish law. Principles in Judaism forbid despoliation of a body once it is deceased. These scholars promote that an autopsy does not provide the body with the amount of respect and honor it deserves. Some rabbis have deemed a body “impure” after it has undergone examination through autopsy. Furthermore, the Torah asserts that disgracing a corpse is prohibited, including disfigurement of the body as a result of dissection through autopsy efforts prior to burial.

On the contrary, other rabbinic scholars believe that the Torah commands us to preserve and save lives. Therefore, if a physician can study a deceased body to help learn how to prevent unnecessary deaths in the future, it is permissible. All in all, these scholars argue that autopsies benefit the living and can be performed for this reason.

Although individuals hold different points of view, it is evident that the prohibition against performing autopsies is not all encompassing. An autopsy may be conducted on a corpse to directly contribute to saving a patient who is currently awaiting treatment, or to study a contagious disease suspected to have played a role in an individual’s death. The use of medications and hereditary disorders can also be studied through autopsy.

If another, smaller method can be used to study any of the factors listed above, it is preferred over autopsy in the Jewish religion. However, if death occurred and an autopsy is necessary, the operation must be performed as close to the date of death as possible, in the least amount of time. It is also common in Judaism for a rabbi or observant to be present during the autopsy. Most importantly, it must be assured that all parts of the body will be retained for burial.

When in doubt, consult a rabbi to clear up any concerns that you may have about what may or may not be permissible. Given that an autopsy is performed under special circumstances, this is generally not something that you would have to be concerned with when making funeral arrangements.

At Star of David Memorial Chapels in Long Island, New York, our funeral directors are here to help provide guidance with questions pertaining to burial, funeral services, and cremation. Please contact us at 631-454-9600.

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