A funeral director serving the Amish in Lancaster County says that Amish rarely donate organs.
But the law still requires that the bodies of the deceased be held “until an organ procurement organization reviews the case and releases the body.”
This hold-up frequently causes distress to Amish families who wish to proceed with traditional viewing and funeral preparations, according to Philip W. Furman.
Furman’s family’s funeral home has served the Amish for close to seven decades.
In a recent article at Penn Live, he explains that the responsible organization in Lancaster County, Gift of Life, is the gatekeeper when it comes to the Amish receiving their loved ones’ bodies:
“They are allowed to hold the body hostage until the family says ‘no’ or Gift of Life determines the body is not eligible to donate,” Furman said of the state and federal hospital notification laws giving power over the dead to organ donation organizations.
With skin, bone, ligaments and other tissue able to be recovered up to 24 hours after death, the delays can mount even further if a family agrees to donate, which the Amish rarely do, Furman added.
“I have to tell them, ‘You have to call Gift of Life’,” said Furman, noting that even a delay of six to eight hours can anger the Amish by disrupting their death rituals.
How many Amish has Furman seen donate organs over the years? Almost none. Out of roughly 1,500 instances, he has seen precisely two donate.
Going by those numbers, you can conclude that organ donation is simply something the Amish do not do. Why is that the case?
I believe this may come from the Scriptural belief that the physical (“mortal”) bodies of Christians will be one day resurrected (see passages such as Romans 8:11). If so, that would also probably figure into why you don’t see Amish cremations.
Gift of Life presents a different picture than Furman.
However, the statement they share is vague and doesn’t offer any specific details indicating that Amish directly participate in organ donation:
“Gift of Life works closely with our hospital partners to provide families with the opportunity for organ donation. It is our experience that the Amish are supportive of organ donation and that they regard donation as a final act of generosity to support the health and welfare of transplant recipients. Gift of Life carefully and compassionately guides each family through the donation process, and as part of that process, ensures that donation is compatible with religious burial timing requirements. Most major religions in the United States support organ donation and consider donation as the ultimate act of love and generosity toward others.”
It sounds like this situation can be quite upsetting for Amish families, and you can understand why. Here’s Furman again:
When this mourning period is prolonged unnecessarily by the legal requirements of organ donation, grieving Amish can be stirred to anger. Often it is vented at the funeral director, Furman said. That’s when he explains about the organ donation hold and the need for the family to contact Gift of Life.
“They don’t like delays,” Furman said of the grieving Amish. “Initially, they are mad at me. They think I am dropping the ball.”
Under state law, Furman said he cannot make any comments that would sway the family against donation.
“It’s a very delicate conversation,” Furman said of his comments to grieving Amish families about organ donation. “I am not allowed to the coach the family. I can’t give a recommendation to the family as to whether they should or should not donate.”
Delays can be compounded by the fact that Amish, who don’t carry around phones like non-Amish do, can be more difficult to reach.
Furman goes on to share more on his role, including what happens after the body is released:
Only after a body is released by the organ donation organization can Furman pick up the remains and perform the embalming. Afterward, he dresses the body in long underwear for modesty, then delivers the deceased to the Amish home in a plain coffin.
“The coffin is in a room, with a lamp,” he said. “Everything else stripped from the room. I open the coffin and answer any questions.”
Then, the family takes over.
They dress the body in specially made white garments. They lay it out inside the home. Then they host a steady stream of extended family, friends and fellow church parishioners who come to call and pay respects.
“Viewing is continuous,” said Furman, who normally doesn’t attend, affording the family its privacy. “Anyone can stop by from 8 in the morning ’til 9 at night.”
I would imagine that given how tightly-knit the Amish community is, word of this roadblock would get around.
But going by what Furman shares, loved ones of deceased Amish people are still surprised to find out they need to clear things with the procurement organization first. And that can make a difficult time more difficult.