I was a little surprised, a little queasy and a lot impressed when my uncle donated his body to science. I had never known anyone to donate their body to science before and I wasn’t sure what donating your body to science means. Is there a funeral? What happens to the remains once they have been studied? And how does one make the decision to donate one’s body? All these questions were running through my head as I tried to come to terms with the concept of what it means to donate your body to science. I wondered if I would consider donating my body to science.
To be honest, visions of shadowy grave diggers skulking into a cemetery under the light of a full moon, exhuming freshly buried bodies at night, throwing them into a horse-drawn wagon and going to some dark alley to sell them to medical students. Or unclaimed bodies in a morgue being sold by my the night-time morgue attendant with no one the wiser were what I thought of how bodies were ‘donated’ for anatomical study. My thought about how medical students acquired a bod, for anatomical study of course, had more do with sensational 19th century books and stories, movies, TV and a lurid imagination. Of course, in this day and age bodies in the morgue are more likely to be claimed or identified. Our communication capabilities, forensic skills and abilities and desire to identify a body provides for fewer anonymous bodies. And exhuming bodies is probably not as easy as it used to be.
Once I learned that my uncle was donating his body to the University of Massachusetts Medical Center, I was curious as to how long it would be before there was a funeral. That’s when I learned the the Medical School who received the donated body would have a memorial service for all those bodies donated to their anatomical class; and that the memorial might in the Fall (he died in the spring) and might be in the Fall of the next year. While I still thought it was a noble thing to do, it made me squeamish. Why would anyone do such a thing? And how do the medical schools solicit such donations? And not knowing when the funeral or memorial would be seemed like his death hadn’t really happened yet, that he was somewhere that I couldn’t reach or see.
On Saturday, May 10, 2014, I attended the anatomical gift memorial ceremony organized by the Class of 2017 at the University of Massachusetts Medical School in Worcester. It was a moving tribute to those who had donated their bodies for students for anatomical study. The student arranged and presented a beautiful and moving memorial service for the family and friends of those being memorialized. Several of the speakers, musicians and the soloist were class members. Family members also spoke. Family members were mostly spouses and children of those who had donated and in one case a best friend spoke. In a few cases it was a student who read a memorial for the family. Most of those who donated were older or elderly but in one case the person memorialized was a woman who died in her 40’s after a long battle with cancer. She wanted of cancer in her 40’s after a long batter.
These were moving and very individualized memorials. They included a woman who talked about her mother who still holds the 10K running record in the 85 and over category but failed to learn to throw the javelin at 92 because she was blind and no one was willing to spot her. This was a woman who decided to take up sports at the age of 68 after a life of no particular exercise. Other memorials were for a medical school professor whose ashes were in his wife’s garden, on campus and in Nepal, where one child lived, and eventually in Spain, where another child lived. We learned that remains and ashes cannot be mailed to Spain but an be mailed to Nepal.
The most moving part of the ceremony was when a faculty member talked about the caress. These anatomical gifts are the students first patient and their toughest patient, the one they will remember the longest, and the one who taught them the most. At some point the cadaver will become a cherished patient and a very important patient. At some point they will touch this patient with a small caress, a desire to provide comfort to their first patient. The faculty member and most everyone in the audience was visibly moved by this description. I was one of those in tears. This was followed by a student reading the moving poem story about the boy and the tree by Sheldon Silverstein. I was still in tears.
After the ceremony the entire class stood and clapped for those who had taught them by donating their bodies. The ceremony was followed by a luncheon hosted by the students and a visit to the flowering crabapple tree planted to remember these gifts, the anatomical gifts that become the students first patients. My questions of who, how and why people donated their bodies for anatomical study were answered and I now know what a wonderful service donating your body can be for a medical student.