Cadaver Memorial Service Honors Donors

Contributor
School of Medicine

More than 80 students, faculty and staff joined together in Cole Hall on May 15 to pay their last respects to the anonymous men and women who donated their bodies for the study of anatomy.

This memorial service, organized by first-year UCSF students, featured an address by Andrew Corson, coordinator of the UCSF Willed Body program, and more than a dozen performances from students and faculty, including the reading of an original poem, “To the Man on the Table,” a dance set to the music of Billie Holiday, and a cover of Eric Clapton’s “Tears in Heaven.”

Family members of the donors were not invited to the event, which was billed as an opportunity for the UCSF community to share their thoughts and feelings with each other in a safe and open space before the cadavers were cremated and their ashes scattered at sea.

In one of the first readings of the evening, Peter Ohara, professor of Anatomy and director of the UCSF Anatomy Lab, recited a poem by Rupert Brooke, an Englishman who fought and perished in World War I. In “The Soldier,” Brooke opens with a line of beautiful and heartbreaking foresight: “If I should die, think only this of me: / That there’s some corner of a foreign field / That is for ever England…

In the preface for his reading, Ohara shared his belief that just like that little piece of Brooke’s England, buried in a faraway field, a little part of these donors will persist in the people that they touched.

So even though the students will remain ignorant of the lives that these donors have lived, they will carry forward into their future careers some knowledge of their shared experiences together in Anatomy lab.

These themes of interconnectedness and communion were touched upon again and again throughout the evening. In the first open mic session of the evening, Irena Tan, a first-year medical student who helped organize the memorial, expressed the meaning she gleaned from the simple act of taking her cadaver’s hand. 

“In that moment, I could feel the skin of her fingertips, and the smoothness of her bluntly cut fingernails, and the wrinkles that had been worn away in her skin,” Tan said.

“I knew the truth of her hand, the reality of its owner’s existence, and the life that had worn away those wrinkles. I knew it without a doubt of uncertainty, because it was not only my hand that was telling me this, but it was hers as well.

Though students and faculty alike spoke of the intimacy of the bond that they formed with their donors, several participants recounted how hard they initially worked to approach their dissections in a dispassionate and goal-driven manner.

However, each of these students spoke of the journey that they underwent to come to appreciate the humanity of the donors, and their wish to repay this gift in their future careers as doctors, dentists and pharmacists.

The respect and appreciation expressed by the students had a big impact on the faculty members who attended the memorial, who included quite a few instructors from the Department of Anatomy.

“To me, [the memorial] is some kind of closure,” said Kimberly Topp, professor of Anatomy and chair of the Department of Physical Therapy and Rehabilitation Science.

“Anatomy is such an intimate experience for a lot of students doing dissection during the year, and the memorial really does provide them with closure to the year, along with a ‘thank you’ for what they have learned. You’re a changed person at the end of the year, in part because of that experience.”

Topp, who has been attending these memorial services since she came to UCSF as a postdoctoral student in the 1990s, expressed how her experience teaching anatomy inspired a change of her own.

“As I got to know the individuals from the Willed Body Program and saw the impact of what we’re doing, in part through the service, I became a donor,” Topp said. “I would like to know that at some point in time, somebody will be singing a song to the name that they gave me on that table.”