Treasured Remains: Embryo Jewelry and Disposal of Human Remains

Editors Note: This article appeared in Salvo 42, Fall 2017 edition and is used by permission.

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What do we do with the remains of our loved ones? Must we choose burial, or is cremation an option? The topic is endlessly discussed and portrayed in blog posts, literature, ethics reviews, and, now, in a car commercial. In its newest campaign, Volkswagen portrays a family, including Grandmother, trekking across the U.S. visiting places Grandpa would have wanted to see. At journey’s end, a grandson pours Grandpa’s ashes into the Pacific Ocean. Cremated remains are almost infinitely versatile: they can be scattered, buried, placed in a columbarium, used to fertilize a tree, floated in a helium balloon, dropped from an airplane, or even launched into space.[1]

But what about decisions regarding the body of a relative who has not died? This is the dilemma of couples who have gone through IVF, and created embryos that for a variety of reasons were more than they used. With these “excess” embryos in frozen storage, many couples struggle with what to do. They may feel incapable or be physically unable to have more children, unwilling to subject their embryos to destructive research, and reluctant to let them be adopted by another couple. One couple and an enterprising artist came up with the “perfect” solution: turn the embryos into jewelry. Instead of offering her seven embryos a hospitable womb, the mother (let’s call her Diana) chose to encase them—their ashes, that is—in a heart-shaped pendant so she could have them “forever with me in a beautiful keepsake.”[2]

Mourning jewelry, which dates at least to the eighteenth century, preserves a lock of a loved one’s hair. Today’s keepsake jewelry might be a pendant or other small chamber for preserving a loved one’s ashes. But embryo jewelry is created through mixing the embryo’s ashes with jeweler’s resin, and shaping into the desired design.

Jewelry that portrays embryonic or fetal human beings already exists. Pro-lifers are familiar with the “baby feet” pin showing the fetus at ten weeks. Necklaces depicting the four-celled embryo or a double helix can celebrate bioscience.[3] These do not raise ethical red flags. Even keepsake jewelry that preserves a few ashes from a relative’s remains, while certainly atypical and to many an odd and antiquated practice, is not immoral.

There is one obvious and dispositive difference between Diana’s decision and the myriad of ways to dispose of cremated remains. In the former case, Diana’s decision is the direct cause of her embryos’ death. Encasing their remains in resin and giving it aesthetic value does not legitimate the wrongfulness of her choice. For the latter case, one may question the appropriateness of scattering human ashes, or even incorporating them in food or drink, but that action did not precipitate death.

What have we come to, that in a fog of moral blindness the conversion of one’s embryonic children into keepsake jewelry is even considered? Have we lost a sense of proportionate moral outrage? The public conversation as conducted via tweets, blog posts, and anonymous comments, explodes with coarse indignation over the trivial, while eliding the more personal, and therefore more uncomfortable, reflections on technologies and techniques that undermine our respect for all human beings.

The good news is that Diana’s decision was not broadly celebrated, and was widely questioned. Even so, some comments were tempered with equivocation and vacillation on the order of, this is “creepy,” but maybe it’s also “an attempt to honor the profound, if complex, moral status of the embryo.”[4]

At this point, it would be tempting to revisit concerns about IVF and its consequences for couples and their future offspring, but I would like to propose a different consideration: how do we think about human bodies after death?

Burning or Burial?

For millennia, cremation was practiced widely, but not in Christendom. Beginning in the middle of the twentieth century, the popularity of cremation among Christians began to rise, triggering a response from theologians that addressed the gap in theological reflection about this custom.[5] As Christian ethicist David Jones summarizes, one of the concerns being addressed is whether cremation decisions were based upon theological reflection, ethical conclusions, utilitarian calculations, or mere convenience. Outside the U.S., burial space is vanishing, particularly in metropolitan areas.[6] Practical factors seem to be the driving impetus behind cremation: expense, concerns for the environment, and its relative ease. (The current “green” perspective rejects cremation because of its carbon emissions, and proposes resomation, a lye and hot water process that dissolves the body, which is then “disposed” down the drain.)

In his discussion of cremation as an option for Christians, Jones notes that the decision is not a matter of sin, affecting one’s eternal destiny, but of ethics, what it communicates, and whether it is a Christian act. Jewish people and the early Christians were known for burial, in marked contrast to the societies in which they lived. In fact, church historian Philip Schaff observes that their care for the dead was a primary driver in the expansion of Christianity in the ancient world.[7] Cremation and being burned at the stake were reserved for criminals and heretics. These historical considerations may not be applicable today, but their remarkable respect for the dignity of the human body is still relevant.

The contemporary conversation about how to treat human bodies raises two important theological considerations. First is the dignity of the human body, because we have consistently affirmed the dignity of the whole person as an ensouled body—or, if you prefer, an embodied soul. The body is neither to be used just as we please, nor casually disposed upon our death. Robert George describes current neognostic views of human bodies as careering between treating them as something to be escaped from or to be manipulated at will. In this ultimately nihilistic view, nonbodily persons inhabit nonpersonal bodies, and the material body is severed from one’s mental and spiritual being.

A second consideration is the affirmation of the bodily resurrection. The post-Resurrection appearances of Jesus in a physical glorified body give us a foretaste of our own future. Our resurrection in physical, glorified human bodies to enjoy eternal fellowship with God is core to Christian hope.

Ethical Hard Choices

How then might we think about ethical disposal of human remains today? The most ethical thing to do might be to donate one’s organs for transplantation, or one’s body for medical education (which necessitates cremation). Jones suggests that when circumstances preclude burial, the important ethical consideration is how the body is handled, and what is communicated about Christian faith and hope at the funeral or memorial service. (Needless to say, a party to “put the F-U-N back in Funeral!”[8] is out of bounds.)

 Let us assume for a moment that Diana and her husband are Christians. Their embryonic children were human beings with intrinsic dignity who deserved a chance at a full, flourishing and embodied life. If those efforts failed, how then might they communicate respect for their children’s brief lives, and their hope of resurrection? Certainly not by entombing them in a glittering pendant.

Yet, even here, there is hope. The patristics’ argument that God will gather the material of the body and put it together at the resurrection is comforting. No tomb—glittering pendant or otherwise—negates the belief that God will raise even the tiniest embryos on the last day as fully embodied persons.


Reference


[1] “27 Things to Do with Cremated Remains,” USurnsonline.com, August 6, 2013. http://www.usurnsonline.com/oddbits/27-things-to-do-with-cremated-remains/.

[2] Lisa Mayoh, “Couples Are Turning Extra Embryos into Jewellry,” Kidspost.com.au, May 3, 2017. http://www.kidspot.com.au/parenting/real-life/in-the-news/couples-are-turning-extra-ivf-embryos-into-jewellery.

[4] Ruth Graham, “Just How Creepy Is ‘Embryo Jewelry,’ Exactly?” Slate.com, May 5, 2017. http://www.slate.com/blogs/xx_factor/2017/05/05/embryo_jewelry_is_creepy_but_how_creepy.html.

[5] These comments are derived significantly from David W. Jones, “To Bury or Burn? Toward an Ethic of Cremation,” JETS 53, no. 2 (2010): 335-347. Available at http://www.etsjets.org/files/JETS-PDFs/53/53-2/JETS_53-2_335-347_Jones.pdf.

[6] Christopher Coutts, “Baby Boom Will Lead to Shortage of Cemetery Space,” New York Times, October 30, 2013. https://www.nytimes.com/roomfordebate/2013/10/30/cemeteries-are-running-out-of-room/baby-boom-will-lead-to-shortage-of-cemetery-space.

[7] Jones, 338.

[8] http://www.thepartyofyourlife.com/ (Accessed July 10, 2017).

 

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