What is the definition of death?

Submitted photo
Gerald Vigna, Ph.D., is a medical ethicist and theology professor at Alvernia University.
Submitted photo Gerald Vigna, Ph.D., is a medical ethicist and theology professor at Alvernia University.

With the latest national headlines about families battling with hospitals to keep a relative on life support after being declared brain dead, the definition of death has been a topic of concern, and has been a topic of concern for religious, and philosophical beliefs for eons. Advancements in medicine ushered in new practices for patients to breathe artificially on ventilators and to be nourished via feeding tubes along with exact scientific measurements of human functioning.

Gerald Vigna, Ph.D., a medical ethicist and theology professor at Alvernia University in Reading, explained how this has led to legal battles over the definitions of death.

“First, it is so tragic when loved ones must come to terms with the finality of death. The extraordinary advancements in medical science have made the matter at times more, not less, confusing. Thus such conditions as locked-in syndrome from ALS or a persistent vegetative state where there is only brain-stem activity have raised the question of what type of medical treatment is ethically required.”

Referring to the legal definition, Vigna pointed out that the definition of death in all 50 states is the cessation of all brain activity.


A Berks County family, speaking anonymously, related their own similar experience. “It is the most heart wrenching decision a family will ever have to make. Our son, after suffering a major stroke and surgery to place a stent into the brain stem, suffered a severe brain hemorrhage and shift of the brain with no possible reversal or cure. The doctors recommended turning off life support.” The local mother held her son’s hand as a Catholic priest administered the last rites of the church guiding his soul to heaven; both praying the prayers of the church as the machines went to zero.

Vigna points out the difference between a patient who is brain dead and a person so severely injured that recovery to a meaningful life is impossible. “In the latter case, medical ethics has adopted a standard that medical treatment can be refused or withdrawn when the burden of the treatment outweighs the benefit to be gotten from it.”

Various sensationalized news reports and the accusations against the California hospital conjured up guilt and second guessing in the painful memories of this family.

And then Fox News broadcasted an interview with Father Jonathan Morris, a Catholic priest who said “science and religion are not at odds. The neurological definition of death is brain death. Five doctors have examined her and declared her brain dead. The machines are only keeping her breathing. The soul is gone to heaven. Someone needs to counsel this heartbroken family to help them accept this,” according to video.foxnews.com/v/3019259511001/father-jonathan-morris-weighs-in-on-jahi-mcmath-case/?playlist_id=921247447001#sp=show-clips.

Vigna said, “Fr. Morris rightly makes the point that the families left behind deserve compassionate care in line with their religious or spiritual beliefs to come to terms with this uniquely painful loss.”

Vigna also spoke about the necessary steps everyone should take in advance of such circumstances. “Prepare a living will and a durable power of attorney. Research all these matters carefully. We owe it to our loved ones not to let them face these decisions without guidance.”

Tri County Record correspondent Carol Quaintance has a B. A. in Multi Media Communications with a minor in psychology from Alvernia University where she studied Medical Morality Theology as well as Theology and Mysticism. In addition, as director of the former local non-profit “Wellness Connection “she took classes in Mind /Body Medicine and Healing and Spirituality at Harvard’s Mind Body Medical Institute, Boston Massachusetts with Herbert Benson , M.D., cardiologist, researcher, and medical professor who holds the first chair in the world in Mind Body Medicine.