‘Life after Death – the Dead shall Teach the Living’: a Qualitative Study on the Motivations and Expectations of Body Donors, their Families, and Religious Scholars in the South Indian City of Bangalore

Abstract

In India, there has been a shift from using unclaimed bodies to voluntary body donation for anatomy dissections in medical colleges. This study used in-depth qualitative interviews to explore the deeper intent, values and attitudes towards body donation, the body and death, and expectations of the body donor (N = 12), as well as their next of kin (N = 7) and representative religious scholars (N = 12). All donors had enrolled in a body bequest programme in a medical school in South India. This study concludes that body donors are philanthropists with deep-rooted values of altruism and service, who are often willing to forgo traditional religious and cultural death rituals. The next of kin are often uncomfortable with the donor’s decision, and this suggests that it is important that dialogue/counselling occurs at the time of the bequest, if the donor’s wishes are to be respected. Religious injunctions are often misinterpreted; this implies that religious leaders/scholars can play a significant role in addressing these misconceptions which are barriers to body donation. Body bequest programmes in India may be enhanced by positioning body donation as ‘daana’—giving without any expectation of return for a higher purpose, including ceremonies of respect in medical colleges. Furthermore, increased public engagement and awareness about body bequest programmes are also important to enhance participation. When medical students internalise what body donors expect of them, i.e. altruism, empathy with patients and becoming ‘good doctors’, it will help to ensure that the donation was not in vain and that the dead truly teach the living.

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Acknowledgements

This study was accepted and presented in the format of a poster at the 6th National Bioethics Conference, organised in January 2017 in Pune, India. The participants of this study are acknowledged for the time that they spent and the personal views that they shared to make this study possible. Dr. Mario Vaz, Head, Division of Health and Humanities and Department of the History of Medicine, St. John’s Medical College, is thanked for his valuable feedback and advice at various stages in this study and for reviewing the manuscript multiple times.

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The Institutional Ethics Committee (IEC) of St. John’s National Academy of Health Sciences (SJNAHS) provided a grant for the conduct of this study.

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Correspondence to Manjulika Vaz.

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Sasi, A., Hegde, R., Dayal, S. et al. ‘Life after Death – the Dead shall Teach the Living’: a Qualitative Study on the Motivations and Expectations of Body Donors, their Families, and Religious Scholars in the South Indian City of Bangalore. ABR 12, 149–172 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s41649-020-00117-3

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Keywords

  • Body donation
  • Anatomy dissection
  • Medical students
  • Humane doctor
  • Daana
  • India