The Church’s Views on End-of-life Decisions: Cremation, Prolonging Life, Organ Donation

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As members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, we’re taught that our bodies are temples and sacred creations of God. This seems like a pretty straightforward doctrine, that is until we get to the end of our journey here on Earth.

In times of distress, we often turn to the Church for guidance. Below you’ll find the Church’s policies on organ donation, assisted suicide, cremation, and prolonging life.

The Church and Organ Donation

The Church has no policy regarding organ donation, but that hasn’t stopped rumors from popping up here and there.

Cecil O. Samuelson, an emeritus general authority and former president of BYU who was also a physician, wrote an article for the Church’s website about organ donation. In the absence of an official stance from the Church, Samuelson tried to make sense of the topic of organ donation in light of gospel and medical principles.

The Church has taken no official position on organ transplants. It seems obvious, however, that organ transplantation does not affect one’s resurrection, since the organ would soon have returned to the basic elements of the earth following death anyway. Whatever happens to an organ following death, we are promised that “every limb and joint shall be restored to its body, yea, even a hair of the head shall not be lost” (Alma 40:23).

— Cecil O. Samuelson

Like most decisions, Samuelson encouraged members to approach organ donation with careful study and prayer. Once an individual has taken those steps, they can know whether or not the decision is right for them and their family. From a medical standpoint, organ donation is a blessing in many lives.

According to the American Transplant Association, a single person can save up to eight lives and can enhance the lives of over 100 people through organ donation. Over 700,000 transplants have been performed in the U.S. since 1988 and the need for more transplants is only increasing.

“Tremendous blessings have come to countless thousands and their families through organ donation and replacement,” states Samuelson in his article. “…Families grieving from the death of a loved one have been greatly comforted by the knowledge that other lives have been saved or measurably improved through receipt of a vital organ transplant. Other families have been spared debilitating illness or death because a living family member was able to donate an organ to a loved one.”

He continued by saying “As I work with donors and recipients and witness the selfless love that is evident in this gift of life and health, I am often reminded of Peter and John’s encounter with the lame beggar as the two Apostles made their way into the temple. The lame man asked only for alms but instead was healed. To the one in need, Peter said, ‘Silver and gold have I none; but such as I have give I thee.’”

One specific example of the blessings of organ donation is the story of BYU football coach Reno Mahe’s daughter, Elsie. She was only 3 years old when she died after becoming caught in a window blind cord and suffering a brain injury as a result of strangulation.

About a year after the tragedy, Mahe told ABC News that his daughter served an important mission and purpose at such a young age.

“We were praying that she would have a miracle and that she would be able to come away from this,” Mahe said. “You know you’re hopeful that you can take your little girl home…When the results came back the way it did, we went to the temple to find some kind of peace about her situation…That’s kind of the feeling that we got. It wasn’t supposed to be a miracle for her but from her in the form of organ donation.”

For more information on whether or not organ donation is the right choice for you, visit the U.S Government’s website on organ donation.

The Church and Prolonging Life

Prolonging LifeAlthough the modern advances of medical technology do so much good, they can also put families in difficult positions when it comes time to decide whether or not to prolong the life of a loved one.

In an official statement on euthanasia and prolonging life, the Church declared:

“The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints does not believe that allowing a person to die from natural causes by removing a patient from artificial means of life support, as in the case of a long-term illness, falls within the definition of euthanasia. When dying from such an illness or an accident becomes inevitable, it should be seen as a blessing and a purposeful part of eternal existence. Members should not feel obligated to extend mortal life by means that are unreasonable. These judgments are best made by family members after receiving wise and competent medical advice and seeking divine guidance through fasting and prayer.”

I can testify that the power of revelation is real and very much needed at a time of such difficulty — I’ve seen it in my own family. As my grandpa came to the end of a terminal illness that had spanned a number of rollercoaster months where it seemed like his health was improving one day and plummeting the next, there were a lot of decisions to be made.

I’m grateful that members of my family were able to utilize prayer and fasting to find their own answers to the problems that kept springing up. The last thing a family needs at a time like that is disagreement or contention, and I think the ability to pray and fast about these decisions can seriously help a family find peace and understanding as a unit.

Now, while the Church has left judgment to families about when to pull the plug, they have made it clear that euthanasia, or assisted suicide, is “a violation of the commandments of God.” In the aforementioned official statement, the Church clarified their position by saying, “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints believes in the sanctity of human life, and is therefore opposed to euthanasia.”

The Church and Cremation

CremationThe stigmatization in the Western world against cremation springs from an idea in early Christianity that cremation devalued the divine heritage of our bodies. Many people viewed cremation as a Pagan belief since some religions hold the belief that the fire acts as a cleansing agent that releases the spirit from a dirty mortal prison.

As the Church as expanded to encompass a diverse international membership, their attitude towards cremation has softened. Like with organ donation, cremation is a matter that is best approached with prayer and thoughtful consideration in each individual situation. The Church’s handbook states:

“The Church does not normally encourage cremation. The family of the deceased must decide whether the body should be cremated, taking into account any laws governing burial or cremation. In some countries, the law requires cremation.

“Where possible, the body of a deceased member who has been endowed should be dressed in temple clothing when it is cremated. A funeral service may be held.”

In 1991, BYU religion professor Roger R. Keller wrote a 1972 New Era article for the Church shedding some light on cremation practices in the Church. He was careful to point out that regardless of whatever end our bodies meet — whether it be a traditional burial, a watery grave, or cremation — they will be restored to their complete fullness in the resurrection. He also shared why the Church tends to encourage a traditional burial over cremation.

“This tradition [of burying the dead] most nearly symbolizes the gospel teachings of death, burial, and resurrection — the atonement of Christ — and of baptism by immersion, as Paul suggests in Romans 6.”

—Roger R. Keller

Members should not feel guilty for choosing cremation. In some cases, cremation is the only choice. This is true of many urban areas where there simply isn’t enough space to bury all the dead. At times, a traditional burial may not be within the financial means of a family, making cremation a better option. The Church has given us the gift of judging our own circumstances and making a decision from there.

The Importance of Agency

AgencyAs I did research for this article, I was struck by the one thing, other than death, that connects all of these topics: agency. From choosing when to take a loved one off of life support to deciding to become an organ donor, the Church as counseled members to use their own free will when making end-of-life decisions.

The responsibility that comes with these decisions can make us wish the Church took a more direct, hands-on approach since rules and guidelines can be comforting when everything else in life seems to be crumbling. Unfortunately, if we want everything to be given to us, we’re in the wrong church. D&C 58:27 says:

“For behold, it is not meet that I should command in all things; for he that is compelled in all things, the same is a slothful and not a wise servant; wherefore he receiveth no reward.”

The point of life isn’t for it to be easy — a point that becomes glaringly clear when we come face to face with our own death or the death of someone close to us. Luckily, Heavenly Father has given us the gift of revelation to make things a little easier.

Our use of agency should be exercised hand in hand with prayer and fasting. As we grapple with how to address the tough questions that arise as we face the realities of death, the only real way to find a way out is by searching for answers and comfort through personal revelation.