Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Cadaver Memorial Ceremonies

It's a long time since I studied anatomy in medical school. And my own areas of teaching - ethics, psychiatry and primary care - are a long way from the dissecting table. As a result, a recent article about the ceremony conducted at the end of the anatomy course at Northwestern University brought the custom of cadaver memorial ceremonies to my attention. Given that I purport to be interested in ethics education, I should have looked into these ceremonies long ago!

When I studied anatomy in the early 1960s, we were asked to treat the cadaver with respect. But exploring the emotional and spiritual meanings of the human encounter with the person we dissected was too touchy-feely for the era.

This year, at Northwestern's end-of-course ceremony, four families of the people who were dissected attended. One woman, along with her husband, agreed to meet with the students who had dissected her mother's body:
...Watching all of it were Ellen Griffin-Stolbach and her husband, Brad, of Chicago, the only family members who met with students. The six team members huddled around the couple, solicitous and humbled.

Their donor was Barbara Halloran, 72, Mrs. Griffin-Stolbach’s mother, who died from lung cancer last year. Ms. Halloran had read an account of a similar ceremony and decided to donate her body to the association.

Mrs. Griffin-Stolbach told the students that her mother was tough on doctors and often just wanted them to listen. Isn’t that so often the case? There’s a lot more going on with patients than the physical, she told them. Be sensitive to the emotions and psychology, she urged.

Later, she described the gathering’s importance to her.

“My mother’s body was such an important part of who she was,” she said. “The medical interventions in her life, good or bad, were important. Meeting the students, eye to eye, brought closure.”
Many years ago I had occasion to talk with a patient of mine about her decision to donate her body for dissection. She didn't have children of her own, and the idea of contributing to the education of the next generation meant a lot to her. She'd tried to be useful to others during her lifetime, and wanted to continue that process after death. I wish I could have met with the students who met her at the dissecting table to talk with them about her, as Mrs. Griffin-Stolbach did about her mother.

I did a Google search for "cadaver memorial service" and found stories from many medical schools. I especially appreciated, and recommend, this blog post by a medical student at UCSF and this video from UNC.

Contemporary medical education has something in common with a medieval morality play in which good and evil struggle for the soul of Everyman. Sadly, it's been well documented that the years spent on hospital wards pull students towards cynicism and callousness. Happily, formats like the cadaver memorial services draw students' souls towards compassion and tenderness!

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