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Final Thanks

Saying goodbye to those whose bodies served medical science.


Three bouquets of flowers adorn the common plot, along with a plaque that reads, "Here Lie The Remains of Those Who Have Donated Their Body to Medical Science." The ashes lie beneath.

On this November afternoon, this service is simply called, "A Service of Thanksgiving and Committal Honoring the Lives of Anatomical Gift Donors."

In the past year, many of these medical students have come face to face with death for the first time. Over the course of nine weeks, nearly every day, for about five hours, the students have gone to the 10th floor of Sanger Hall and entered a multilevel laboratory of 8,000 square feet. There, in groups of five, they gathered around a steel vat, resembling a coffin, and opened the top using a lever to bring a draped body to the surface of the vat.

The bodies — about 50 in all — had been embalmed for a month or two; they didn't look real. Soon, every bit of the cadaver would be dissected for study. Bone saws used. The brain taken out. Through it all, though, many of the students — who were told only the age, occupation and cause of death — gave names to the dead. There was the 90-year-old shop owner whom the students called Ed, and Betty, the beautician who died at 80.

Sometimes Karen Annis, a second-year medical student, felt that Betty was looking out for them all. "What you have to do can be pretty gruesome," Annis says. "I knew her soul wasn't there, yet I felt she was watching over us, making sure we learned everything we could."

Each year in Virginia, 450 to 500 people donate their bodies to medical research. At VCU's department of anatomy, all cadavers are obtained through the State Anatomical Program overseen by the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner. Of those bodies studied at VCU, 99 percent are donated; the remainder are unclaimed bodies that have become the property of the state.

Since the early 1970s, MCV has held a memorial service in the fall, around All Saints' Day, to remember those who gave of themselves to further the study of medicine. (Each body is cremated separately, and in some cases, families request that the ashes be returned to them.)

It's difficult to say how common such memorial services are across the country. "Obviously some schools don't have policies," says Dr. John Povlishock, chairman of the department of anatomy and neurobiology, "because there have been some horrific cases of improper disposal of remains." Indeed, in the national news, some willed-body programs have met with scandal.

In August, a neuroanatomy teacher at the University of Florida was arrested for stashing the school's donated cadaver parts at his home. In July, the University of Texas Medical Branch issued an apology for the actions of a former employee who may have sold donated body parts for profit. Other revelations included that ashes of cremated bodies were mingled. And in 1999, the head of the willed-body program at the University of California at Irvine was accused of selling body parts for profit. He was fired.

MCV's interment program was started by former department chairman, Dr. William Jollie. He came to the university in 1969 from Tulane University, which had its own memorial services for those donated bodies. When he came to MCV, he asked what happened to the remains after the completed lab work. He learned that they were burned in an oven, along with diseased organs from operations, and that the ashes were dumped in cans and set out as trash.

"I thought that was a lousy idea," Jollie says. He consulted with a friend, John Burwell Phillips, who was director of Forest Lawn Cemetery. Phillips, in turn, donated a plot of land, an area known now as the MCV Memorial Garden. "My wife used to bring cider and cookies, and we would have a little party," Jollie says.

The tradition continues; at this service, there's a makeshift canopy with a table full of cookies and drinks. Nearby, as students and faculty gather where the ashes are interred, Dr. Povlishock addresses the group: "Thank you for coming," he says. "You studied with these people, and we feel that now this is an appropriate way to honor them."

The Rev. Alma Hassell, from MCV's department of pastoral care, leads some ecumenical liturgy, and several students volunteer to read religious tracts and prayers: Ecclesiastes. An excerpt from "The Prophet." Litany of Thanksgiving. An Aztec Prayer.

"This is a very sacred time to honor those who fully offered themselves up to humankind for the wellness of life," Hassell says. Everyone bows heads, as Hassell leads a prayer.

Timothy James Coker, a 23-year-old medical student, steps forward. It has been a difficult year for him; his 80-year-old grandfather died of Alzheimer's during the time Coker was studying anatomy. Of those days in the lab, he says, "I saw the miracle of life, how muscles move, how the heart operates — it's amazing. There's so much going on inside, and it's truly a miracle that most people will never get to see." Because of these "fine men and women," he says, he and his classmates have received the "gift of knowledge."

"Is there anybody else who would like to say something?" Hassell asks. For a moment, there is silence, only the sound of wind and the rustling of leaves.

"Their very presence speaks," says Dr. Povlishock. And as the service ends, many students approach the plot one last time, some crossing themselves, and some, like Karen Annis, saying a final thanks to Betty and the others.

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