jewish Funeral Guide

Jewish Attitude to Death

Attitude toward Autopsy

The human body is compared to a Torah scroll, which receives its sanctity from the words of God written within. Even after the Torah scroll becomes worn and no longer can be used for Torah reading it still retains its sanctity. The human body too deserves dignified treatment since it was the earthly abode of the immortal soul. This is the basis of the principle of Kavod HaMet / כבוד המת — respect for the dignity of the dead.

Lack of due respect towards the body of the deceased causes tremendous pain to the soul. Imagine how a soul would feel when seeing its body cast around like an animal carcass and mercilessly dissected on the autopsy table. For this reason Jewish tradition does not allow autopsies.

The prohibition of disfiguring the body by autopsy expresses a reverence for man because he was created in God's image (Genesis 1:26). Autopsies are considered to be an insult to the deceased and can only be performed under suspicion of foul play or when the autopsy may directly contribute to saving the life of another patient, and even then only after consultation with a qualified rabbi. The same rule applies to organ donation to hospitals. If an autopsy must be performed, it should be immediate and undertaken with reverence.

There is also a Mitzvah / מצוה to bury the dead body in its entirety. If after an autopsy some of the excised parts of the body are not buried, the Mitzvah of burial is not fulfilled, as ruled in the Jerusalem Talmud, Tractate Nazir 33a.