The light of the body is the eye: if therefore thine eye be single, thy whole body shall be full of light.
But if thine eye be evil, thy whole body shall be full of darkness. If therefore the light that is in thee be darkness, how great is that darkness!
Matthew 6:22-23

Dr Crippen, the NHS Blog Doctor asks if there are any volunteers who will donate their body to medical science. Dissecting a human body is invaluable experience for medical students’ understanding of their primary place of work, but apparently there is a decline in the number of people making donations.
I mentioned this at a small gathering yesterday. Once people had overcome my social faux pas of mentioning human dissection while eating, it was interesting to hear people’s views on the matter.
Most people in the group could not stomach the idea of being chopped up. I find this this attitude rather… immature? Or maybe it is lack of imagination, failing to conceive a world in which you no longer play a part. The body will be dead by the time it happens, so there is no sense in imagining what it might be like to be subjected to the student’s knife. The act of donation is part of your existence. The act of dissection is not. Furthermore, dead bodies are all, ultimately, either burnt or digested: A distgusting thought if one imagines it happening to oneself, but an unavoidable destiny nonetheless. For the squeamish, I would imagine a clean and clinical dissection would be a preferable post-mortem journey. Of course, the destruction of the body during burial or cremation does not occur with a group of teenagers looking on. Perhaps there is a dignity in dissolving to your original carbon atoms in private.
A more positive consensus on the subject of organ donation. Everyone had a card, with various boxes ticked. In the case of four of the group (all women, I noticed), the one box they had declined to tick was the eyes. While they were fine with donating something trivial like a kidney, and even something as poetic as the heart, they would rather keep their eyes to themselves. This, the consensus claimed, was because while other organs are hidden away, “you can actually see the eyes.”
Perhaps they had remembered the old saying “the eyes are the mirror to the soul” and considered that taking the eyes would somehow be removing something more than a cornea. I had not considered this before, and in this materialistic, aetheistic culture, their attitude caught me by surprise.
Cicero (106-43 B.C.) is quoted as saying, Ut imago est animi voltus sic indices oculi (The face is a picture of the mind as the eyes are its interpreter). I found that and the quote from the New Testament via Phrases.org.uk

9 Replies to “Eyes”

  1. I think donating one’s body to medical science sounds not only altruistic but also rather grand and worthwhile, if the use that it is put to is for some sort of research that *directly* furthers curing or preventing illnesses or other sorts of suffering.
    The thought of being butchered or sniggered at by a bunch of boozy, rugger-playing, FHM-reading teenagers so that they can earn too much money and feed their massive egos, on the other hand, doesn’t quite do it for me. I’m not saying this is inevitably what it would be like, but I’d say there’s a fair chance of it, given my experience of med students, and I wouldn’t take the risk. I fear it would be like casting your pearls before swine. They wouldn’t appreciate it.
    As for my eyes, I’m not sure it’s necessarily because of their window-on-the-soul status that would put me off donating them. For me, I think it would be one of two things:
    a) A fear that it might be done by accident when I wasn’t actually dead yet. If my eyes had been removed and then I regained consciousness, that would somehow seem more terrible than waking up without a kidney.
    b) What if I needed them in the “aferlife” if there is one? It is unlikely I would need to cleanse my blood in the afterlife, or breathe air, but I think I would like to be able to see.
    c) Also, there is what things look like, which I think girls care about more than boys. We all know what a kidney looks like loose, as it were: a lovely bean-shaped slippery thing, but in situ, kidneys are not visible, so we have no context to compare the out-of-context object with. Eyes on the other hand, when you take them out of their socket, look rather horrendous, just because we are used to seeing them in their natural habitat.

  2. PS – On removing more than the cornea –
    Does the donor card say “eyes” on it, or just “corneas”? If it just said “corneas”, maybe more people would tick the box. I think there is a cultural meaning attached to having one’s eyes gouged out, which is kind of horrific, and associated with torture, terror, and tyranny. Taking just the cornea on the other hand, would bring it out of the emotional realm and into the clinical, just like a kidney.
    I am also wondering, if they take the whole eye, how would they be able to squish that vile jelly into someone else’s socket? It would be like getting a fat man through the eye of a needle.

  3. An interesting discussion, particularly for me as I actually dissected a body when a medical student. I do remember there was no sniggering, we were told that we must treat the body with respect and I think we did. That’s not to say we did not chat about our social activities whilst painstakingly exposing a particular blood vessel or nerve. I have to say that after a body has been in formalin it does not bear that much resemblance to a living breathing body, its a uniform beige colour and the smell of formalin lingers for ages.
    I am ashamed to say that I do not plan to donate my body to a medical school and will have to give some thought to exactly why not. I have a donor card but like your female friends, Rob, have excluded corneas. It is irrational but the facial mutilation worries me. Clarice’s third reason for not donating an eye resonates with me.

  4. facial mutilation worries me
    Yet decomposition after burial, or combustion at cremation, does not? My point is that I think this attitude is irrational, and its an irrationality that deprives someone of a working pair of corneas. To my mind, the fantastic thought of donating sight totally trumps the unpleasantness of how the corneas actually leave my dead and useless skull.

  5. Yes I agree it IS irrational, I said that in my post, and if someone told me there was a great shortage of corneas I would make a great effort to overcome the irrationality. Curiously decomposition worries me less. Combustion is a problem which is why I want to be buried, is burial more geen than combustion?

  6. Why is combustion a problem? A friend of mine’s mother was cremated and she got given the ashes. When she looked inside, apparently, there were bits and lumps in it that hadn’t burned properly.
    I feel as though burial is more green than combustion, especially if you have a biodegradable coffin. There is the question of there being enough land to go around though, as the poppulation increases, and you can’t re-use a graveyard for hundreds of years. I forsee a problem when all the baby-boomers start dropping off. Also, if there is any doubt surrounding one’s death, it would be good if one’s remains stayed around long enough to benefit from future technological developments that might shed light on it.
    Speaking of which, when people are murdered and horrifically mutilated, the problem with that is the suffering inflicted while still alive, and the pleasure derived by the murderer. So taking a cornea kindly in the name of helping people really shouldn’t be a problem.
    With cremation, I think you have to have a pretty hot furnace, and maybe even fossil fuels to help it burn. What would be better would be if the body was stored somewhere until there was a forest fire or volcano eruption, then just drop it in. I wouldn’t like to be eaten by vultures, but I wouldn’t mind being eaten by lions, tigers, or the like.

  7. Dear Robert,
    I was very pleased to stumble across your blog while actually checking out information in connection with someone on a dating website! This man whose profile I was inspecting said he looked like Robert Kilroy-Silk, the controversial BBC presenter. Curious to see the resemblance, I ran a search on Google and came across your article. Intrigued, I proceeded to read your other articles, particularly the poignant one about Helen the Tortoise’s gender issue and the poetic one about dissection. Funny how my impluse for dating men brought me to the beautiful topic of death! I am okay with dissection for educational purposes (not as inspiration for horror movies), whether it be the cornea or any other part of my body. I love and respect my living body, but whatever I cannot take with me on my journey from life to death is not my own!

  8. Did you see Mindshock on Channel 4 last night?
    Apparently there’s a certain body of evidence to suggest that people receiving heart transplants can also receive the knowledge/memories/preferences of the donor, via nerve cells in the heart itself.
    It’s not an argument against not donating, obviously, but it does perhaps tell us that our squeamishness and superstitions are not totally without foundation…

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