The didactic death: Publicity, instruction and body donation

Jacob Copeman, Deepa S. Reddy


What value does death acquire when body organs are pledged for transplantation? Deaths may be made public by a stated desire to donate, and a matter of public debate precisely because the desire is denied. This essay explores two case studies from India of attempts to donate organs: one of a condemned prisoner, and the other of a former Marxist chief minister of West Bengal. One of these attempts was idealized and exalted, the other thwarted; both gave rise to considerable public conversation. We treat the public nature of these deathbed wishes as moral dramas, for at the heart of each is a quite wrenching contest over the donor’s soul—or its this-worldly equivalent, his legacy—that serves equally as an opportunity to reignite projects of social reform and (re)educate different social constituencies. We thus focus on the didactic functions of donation, where the principal issue at stake is the intention of the dying person to gift his or her organs. We ask, what does organ donation mean at the point of death? We argue that there is more at stake than just the possibilities of saving lives. Rather, these unfolding moral dramas become opportunities for, among other things, Brahminism to be rejected, superstition to be transcended, the values of a modernizing state to be reaffirmed, and a broad spectrum of civic virtues to be inculcated. Pledging one’s body when death is imminent and inevitable becomes the final chance to rewrite the course of a life, to make a worthy biographical statement, and to turn the intimately personal into something of public value. How does the dying donor speak? As murderer, Marxist—or more?


Full Text:


DOI: https://doi.org/10.14318/hau2.2.005