The phenomenology of death, embodiment and organ transplantation

Sociol Health Illn. 2005 Jan;27(1):92-113. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-9566.2005.00433.x.


Organ transplantation is an innovative 21st century medical therapy that offers the potential to enhance and save life. In order to do so it depends on a supply of organs, usually from cadaveric donors who have suffered brain stem death. Regardless of whether and how the deceased recorded their wishes about donation, health professionals will approach the bereaved relatives, before organs are removed. In this article, the results from 19 semi-structured interviews with Scottish donor families will be presented. These accounts will focus exclusively on the families' beliefs about death, the dead body and bonds with the deceased, and whether these affected the donation decision or the organs donated. What the families said about brain stem death (BSD); how and when they understood that death had occurred; and whether the families thought that death caused a 'disembodiment' (that the self was no longer embodied) will be explored. Finally, attention will turn to the bereaved's previous relationship with the embodied person. I conclude that the phenomenology of embodiment, death and organ transplantation offers new answers to the question of 'Who am I'? That is, in order to understand what identity is, one might look for what it is that is lost at death; the body, the self and relationships with others.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Attitude to Death
  • Brain Death
  • Cadaver
  • Death*
  • Family / psychology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Interviews as Topic
  • Male
  • Organ Transplantation / psychology*
  • Philosophy
  • Tissue Donors
  • Tissue and Organ Procurement*