QUESTION: Is it necessary to bury organs which have been replaced through a transplant operation? How would Jewish tradition dispose of these portions of the human body? (Rabbi Norman Cohen, Hopkins MN)
ANSWER: Organ transplants are a very modern medical remedy. However, the problems of disposal of amputated limbs is ancient. Traditionally they were interred and that was required for two reasons. It was considered important to show respect for all parts of the human body and so limbs could not simply be discarded. In addition the ritual uncleanliness, which a corpse or an amputated limb caused priests (kohanim), presented an important consideration. Any priest who came in contact with a dead body or a portion of such a body would be considered defiled (Ket 20b; Yad Hil Tumat Okhlin 16.8; Shevut Yaaqov II #10).
Limbs were buried without formal ritual and simply interred in a portion of the cemetery (Tur Yoreh Deah 266; Shulhan Arukh Yoreh Deah 266; Moses Feinstein Igrot Mosheh Yoreh Deah I 231). We would suggest that major organs be similarly buried or treated in some other respectful manner as incineration.
We, of course, face not only the disposition of major organs as heart, kidney, liver, etc., but also with the disposition of innumerable smaller fragments as pieces of bone, arteries, veins, skin, etc. It is the normal procedure of hospitals to dispose of these fragments in a sanitary and safe manner, frequently through incineration at high temperatures. This reduces the segments to virtually nothing and assures no misuse of these fragments. We would agree that this method of disposition is appropriate and does not dishonor these fragments of the human body nor does it present other problems to us.