UCLA’s medical school class of 2021 said “thank you” this spring to a group of donors, most of whom who couldn’t attend the celebration. They had died, and had left their bodies to UCLA Medical School. With the full permission of each body donor, these first-year medical students took them apart, piece by piece, to learn as much about human physiology as they could.
My father was one of those body donors. He had discovered and signed up for a similar program at NYU before moving to California. When he arrived here for the last chapter of his life, he asked me to find him a similar program and was happy to be set up with UCLA.
In truth, I think Dad was thinking more of us — his family — than he was of the med students. He knew there would be plenty of things for his family to do when he died, and he believed that figuring out how to dispose of his body shouldn’t be one of them. Joining UCLA’s donated body program took that off the list. It also eliminated the need for us to pay for cremation or burial.
Accepted Into Med School Within Hours of His Death
Upon my father’s death, our brief phone call to a dedicated phone line at UCLA was all it took to set the process in motion. Within a few hours, two men had come to pick Dad up in Long Beach and get him started on his journey to Westwood, where the university is located.
Shortly thereafter, we received a packet of wildflower seeds and a thank-you note that mentioned there would be some kind of ceremony at a later date. It was pretty vague about the timing and the nature of the ceremony, but the note itself (along with the seeds) was a comfort.
A letter with the details and an invitation arrived almost a year later, with an RSVP postcard. My brother and I, and our families, committed to attend, ready to honor our father’s choice but not really knowing what to expect.
Dad’s Final Incredible Adventure: Body Donor
When we arrived at Geffen Hall on the UCLA campus on the day of the Ceremony of Thanks, a crowd of young people in white coats were handing out flowers, programs and packets of forget-me-not seeds. As they did, they looked us each in the eye and offered us thanks with a bright, open look and a palpable sense of sincerity.
The western equivalent of Tibetan prayer flags decorated the courtyard. Strings holding notecards went back and forth across a glass wall, and each note had a handwritten message. Some were generic thanks from the Class of 2021. Others were moving tributes written by individual students expressing gratitude for the chance to learn more about human anatomy than could possibly be gleaned from a textbook, a 3D model or even a hologram.
Inside the auditorium, more medical students were offering cards and colored pencils for guests who wanted to add a remembrance of their loved ones. Another med student was playing soothing music on the piano, while two screens showed a slideshow of donors as they had been in life — some old, some young; some already sick, some still in their prime.
We Came to Remember; They Came to Learn
The ceremony itself was a lovely mix of song, poetry and heartfelt expressions of gratitude. These students had spent nearly a year getting to know someone (my dad among them) in a way that his family could never have known him while he was alive.
But those students were also keenly aware that the dead body they had come to know so well could no longer reveal the inner beauty of the person who inhabited it not so long ago. The students expressed a natural curiosity about their lifeless partners in education — Who were you? What were you like? What was your life like? What did you do? What did you know?
The answers to those questions were no longer to be found in the bodies of the donors. And as we, the bereaved, mourned a loss we knew all too well, the students were mourning never having known.
One speaker was a young doctor who had graduated from UCLA only three years earlier. He said this was a ceremony he knew well from the viewpoint of the students, but now he was here to remember his grandmother. Grandma had grown up with nothing, become a successful businesswoman and put him through medical school. She was adamant that she wanted her body donated to this program, he said. Now, he understood the program from both sides, in a way few could.
The young doctor, the administrators who spoke and each of the medical students wanted us to know how valuable our loved one’s donation had been. Without cadavers, students could not learn anatomy to the degree they need to know it before they find themselves working on a live specimen (aka, a patient).
Dad’s Gift Will Continue to Yield Returns
I think my 92-year-old father would have been surprised to hear how much the students valued his body. How they interpreted his donation as the ultimate selfless act. How they intended to keep his memory alive every time they used the information he revealed to them. How their patients, in turn, would extend his impact on Earth without even knowing that they owed their health, to some degree, to a man they never met — a man even their doctor never knew.
I don’t know how Dad would have reacted to all the attention, all the glowing interpretations of his final act of kindness. My guess is that Dad would have shrugged it off, likening his donation of his body to the hand-me-down gift of a coat one no longer wears: “I’m glad you can use it, because I no longer need it.”
That was how he talked about wanting to donate his body, and it was enough of a reason for me to decide to follow in his footsteps. Even before Dad died, I had signed up for the same program. Like Dad did, I now carry a card in my wallet instructing whoever finds me lifeless (literally, not figuratively) to contact UCLA so someone can come pick me up.
This fact gave the ceremony a bit more meaning for me. I knew that when those students spoke of the value of my dad, they were the precursors to the students who will someday, perhaps, speak of me the same way. It was inspiring, comforting and reaffirming to learn what value my body will still have after I die. And it was reassuring to think that someone will be putting it to good use.
(Editor’s note: In keeping with UCLA’s policy of protecting body donors’ anonymity, we are using a pseudonym in place of the author’s name.)
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