Cadaver Memorial Service Honors Donors

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Poetry and music highlighted a moving service commemorating the individuals who donated their bodies for the study of anatomy. 

The annual Cadaver Memorial Service, held on May 7 in Cole Hall, provides first-year students from the Schools of Medicine, Pharmacy, Dentistry and Physical Therapy, and their faculty with an opportunity to share thoughts about working with the cadavers in the anatomy courses.  The family members of the donors were not invited to attend in order to create an atmosphere of safety and openness for students and faculty to express their thoughts and emotions freely.

Andrew Corson, coordinator of the UCSF Willed Body Program, opened the ceremony with a moving story that wove together the process of making a donation with his own personal experiences.  The Willed Body Program receives more than 400 donations a year from all of Northern California.  A small number of donors are selected for the first-year medical, pharmacy, physical therapy and dental classes.  At the end of the year, the donors are cremated and their ashes are scattered at sea.

Dr. Peter Ohara, professor of Anatomy and director of the UCSF Anatomy Lab, provided an insightful interpretation of a quote from Macbeth by William Shakespeare:  “Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player/That struts and frets his hour upon the stage/And is heard no more.” 

Dr. Ohara described the transmission of knowledge between faculty and students and suggested that this transmission over time is a measure of the impression we leave on the Earth.  He related this idea to the knowledge that students gain from studying the cadavers and how that knowledge reflects the impression left by the donors on the future careers of the students.

Musically gifted first-year medical students performed musical pieces written by Simon and Garfunkel, Franz Shubert and J.S. Bach. 

First-year medical student Catherine Burke read an emotional and personal letter to the cadaver she worked with expressing her sincere reactions, regrets, curiosity and appreciation to the donor she learned from this year.

During the first Open Mic session, Dr. Kimberly Topp, professor of Anatomy and chair of the Department of Physical Therapy and Rehabilitation Science, read an original poem written from the perspective of a donor.

First-year medical student Jameze James read an excerpt from Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach to highlight how numerous students from UCSF over the years have been touched by the generous acts of the donors and have enjoyed attending the Cadaver Memorial Service. 

"An open-casket ceremony would not have been especially horrifying for the guests here today, for they have not only seen the deceased in their many and various pieces, but have handled them and are in fact the reason they been dismembered. They are the anatomy lab students."

These words epitomize the unique position held by attendees of the Cadaver Memorial Service and how the service is akin to a funeral for the men and women who selflessly dedicated their bodies for the future of medicine.

The Cadaver Memorial Service Planning Committee, consisting of first-year students from the Schools of Medicine, Pharmacy, Dentistry and Physical Therapy, organized the memorial service.  This year, the Committee passed out cards for attendees to write thank you notes.  These notes now hang on the branches of a tree positioned in the foyer of the Anatomy Lab on the 13th floor of the Medical Sciences Building as a permanent tribute to the donors.