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  • Death, Medicine, and Religious Solidarity in Martin Scorsese's Bringing Out the Dead
  • David M. Hammond (bio) and Beverly J. Smith (bio)

In this paper, we will discuss the portrait of medicine in Martin Scorsese's 1999 film, Bringing Out the Dead. Medicine is frequently represented in films as a metaphor for religion, developing a relationship anthropologists have explored for over a century. In a culture of technology and secularization, it might seem this relationship would have necessarily faded. However, despite today's unprecedented attempts to frustrate death,1 medicine still must surrender to human mortality. Informed by a religious critique, Bringing Out the Dead suggests that medicine, ideally, is "less about saving lives than about bearing witness," as Frank Pierce, the central character in the movie, puts it. To put this suggestion into context, we will describe the relationship between religion and medicine evident in the movie as seen from anthropological and theological perspectives.

The essential claim of Scorsese's film is that redemption is available only by bearing witness to a common human solidarity. Thus, the contemporary practice of medicine, when it is disengaged from questions of human meaning, is represented as in need of a religious critique. As we will demonstrate, insights from anthropology (usually [End Page 109] applied to other cultures) about the relationship between medicine and religion supplement this critique. Bringing Out the Dead implies that the relationship between medicine and religion should exist in our own culture; medicine is incapable of redeeming the despair inherent in the Sisyphean task of preventing death, and thus cannot supplant religion. In summary, we will consider what Scorsese implies about the limits of medicine's power and authority2 —that is, what we can and should do in an effort to heal.

For the medical anthropologist, medicine is the art of healing illness. In most cultures, religion, too, deals with healing.3 Almost universally, the ill look to religious leaders to restore health, and death is an event that religion must acknowledge. Indeed, in much of the early anthropological speculation as to the origins of religion, the need for an explanation for death was hypothesized as among the most important origins.4 One of the founders of anthropology, W. H. R. Rivers, suggests that "one of Man's early modes of behaviour towards disease may thus be regarded as forming part of religion and the religious attitude."5

In some of the cultures anthropologists study, medicine is a subset of religion. For the Ndembu of south-central Africa, for instance, Victor Turner found that some of the rituals for the sick were performed only when the sick had repented of the sin that brought them their misfortune.6 In some other cultures, medicine and religion are synonymous:

Akans [of Ghana] make no or little distinction between medicine and religion. . . . Since illness is defined as a religious dilemma, it must be solved by religious means.7

Rivers feels that such an intimate link between religion and medicine is clear—and probably present—only in societies other than his own, in which religion and medicine have "few elements in common."8 However, a relationship can be seen between religion and [End Page 110] medicine in the cultures of the anthropologists as well. Indeed, while British anthropologists like Rivers were denying the relationship between religion and medicine in their own culture, missionaries from the same culture were actively engaged in proving the anthropologists wrong. The missionaries did so through medical missionary work beginning in the mid-1800s.9 While the goal of some of this work was solely to increase the number of converts,10 there were missionaries who believed that medical missionary work was, "in itself, an expression of the spirit of the Master."11 Thus, despite the claims of Rivers, a close relationship between religion and medicine existed for many in his own culture.

Similarly, early anthropologists identified rituals inherent in the medicine practiced among the people they studied. However, ritual also can be seen in biomedicine.12 This is especially apparent during surgical procedures. The supplicant (patient) is brought to the temple (hospital or clinic) and is purified inside (in the case of bowel surgery) and out. The...