Many people have heard that if you are an organ donor, you cannot be buried according to Jewish law. Historically, this may have been true, but in modern times, this is no longer the case. Judaism considers saving a life as the highest of ethical obligations, which is why organ donation has universal support across the spectrum of observance from Reformed to Orthodox. So, if you have been an organ donor or plan to be, have no worries, you can still be buried in a Jewish cemetery, according to Jewish tradition.
Why should this even matter? The Torah commands us to be buried whole which is why there is debate on this topic. Anything taken from the body, meant that the entire body was not buried. However, modern beliefs say that technically, “wholeness” is satisfied when considering that the transplanted tissue or organs will eventually be buried when the recipient dies.
The question of whether to appoint oneself as an organ donor often comes up when it is time to check the box during application for or renewal of a driver’s license. There is a certain degree of pre-planning that should occur before choosing this designation. The individual’s choice may affect them at end of life, which could occur at any time. So, the preference should be made when that person is fully informed and aware of their options. It is possible that the choice to donate organs or tissue may come up while living, but in most cases, organs are transplanted to another when death occurs.
Moving forward with donation to another while living, enables the gift of life to both parties, conforming to the Jewish belief that life is sacred. Donation upon death is fraught with more concerns. Removing organs from the deceased brings up a lot of ethical questions. This pertains specifically to the state of death. Due to the “gift of life” consideration, the intended usage of the organs could potentially affect the donor’s burial according to Jewish traditions. Are the organs being distributed to recipients to save their lives? Are they being given to science, for research? However, the donor’s state is more controversial, as it involves intervention from doctors and the optimal timing for removal to ensure the health of the organs.
Organ donorship can be confusing to many and there is an annual Donor Sabbath, for this very reason. Religious leaders across all religions, donor families, and medical professionals promote awareness and education to the public. Like with funeral planning, education in advance is imperative to relieve pressure when an eternal decision needs to be made. For those considering this mitzvah, speaking with a rabbi and family members may be called for to make this extremely significant choice.
At Star of David Memorial Chapels on Long Island, our funeral directors understand that there are many emotional choices related to death. Please contact us at 631-454-9600 for guidance and help related to making Jewish funeral arrangements.
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