One Last Gift


One Last Gift

loop-572859_640Last Sunday my husband and I, along with our two children, attended a memorial service for my mother and 92 other individuals.

A memorial service honored the donors to the Anatomy Labs, Tufts University and was presented by the Tufts University Dental & Medical Classes of 2018 and the Physician Assistant Class of 2017.

Over thirty years ago my parents made the amazing and selfless decision to donate, upon their death, their bodies to further the education of young healthcare professionals. Sunday we got to meet these young men and women who this year benefited from my mother’s (and others) generous donations.

My daughter volunteered (at her mother’s urging) to drive all of us to the event. She works and drives in Boston all the time and bless her, knew the area well. As we drove by the auditorium and then circled the block to find a parking space, both my son and husband commented they heard bagpipe music. As we approached the venue, sure enough there was a young man dressed in full regalia piping the guests into the hall. We were greeted by dozens of young men and women clad in their white coats and jackets, the insignia of Tufts University Medical School embroidered on their shoulders. They greeted us with smiles and gratitude. Each of us was given a single stem flower, a program and name tags to wear. Ours read: “The Family of Emily R.” By the time we were seated it was apparent to me the few tissues I hastily stuffed into my pocket were not going to be enough.

These students took the time out of what I am sure is a rigorous schedule to plan and practice for this service. We were moved as students read original poetry, performed flute, saxophone and vocal solos, a cappella music, told stories of the meaning of their anatomy class, and one after one thanked us for the gift our loved ones gave to them.

Included in the program we received are copies of these original stories and poems, numerous reproductions of the drawings and paintings of some of the students, a listing of the first names of the donors and photos of each of the over 65 groups of students and their signatures. Even as I write this, the tears cloud my vision and I have to pause to regain composure. The dean of the school of medicine talked of the impact this program has on medicine. He said if you think of the 400 students practicing in their chosen professions for 40 or so years each, treating perhaps conservatively 300 patients, the gift our loved ones gave will touch the lives over 4 million people.

Following the service we were invited to a light luncheon where we had the privilege to be able to talk in person to the students. They lined the halls and were eager to say hello and tell us what their anatomy lab experience meant to them. Some may not have appreciated it, or felt it was too uncomfortable to discuss. For me (and my family) it was quite the opposite. Although the students were not allowed to discuss who their donor was, their eyes constantly wandered to our name tags, searching I’m sure, to find the connection to the family who honored their loved one by being there that day.

All the students were told was a first name and a brief cause of death. What I learned was that apart from the obvious (“Oh look, here is what a blood vessel looks like as opposed to a nerve”), it was the mystery that these students learned from. One young lady voiced surprise when her donor was missing a lung and had a grossly deformed remaining lung, neither of which was the cause of death. The learning part came from the professors who then nudged the students to delve deeper into what was a mystery. What may have caused this? Why did it happen? Did it lead to any other questions? It seemed like each student looked at their donor as a puzzle. It was their job to figure it out. Just like in the future as doctors, dentists and physicians assistants, it will be their job to figure it out, only the stakes will be so much higher. One student said that after the semester of anatomy you became so attached to your donor you actually missed them when the class was over. I’m so glad mom was able to teach someone from the grave, and that someone will think of her for years to come when they have a mystery to solve.

On a beautiful spring day, I learned first hand the impact of the gift that my father’s death in 2010 and my mother’s in 2014 brought to faceless young medical professionals who will help countless others in the future. It was a privilege.

(On a practical note, you should know that my dad passed away in a nursing home and my mom passed away here at home. As their paperwork to be a part of the anatomical gift program was already completed, the place of death did not matter. Should this be anything you would like more information about you can search Anatomical Gift Program on the Internet or contact the medical school at your local university to see if they have such a program. If you have any personal or practical questions about this you can contact me, I would be happy to share our experience and answer your questions to the best of my ability. And no, it will not weird me out or anything. -TDM)

Like this article? Share on social


Sign in to comment


This is just awesome, TDM. What a touching service and such a great idea. \r\n\r\nI felt like we were right there with you. :)


Thank you for sharing this TDM. I do miss chatting with you and it is so good to know the end of story hasn't ended, and won't end as those anatomy students carry on because of your mom & dad. My dear friend Tom also donated his body to research but I never heard that the family was invited to any ceremony such as you were. What a deeply moving celebration! I too was fascinated by the reactions of the students.


Thank you Judith and Jan. Your responses and others only increases my passion to share this story. When I mentioned it to my OBGYN she spent at least 10 minutes telling me what anatomy class meant to her and her classmates. She was so reverent and awed by the human body and the gift of these individuals. It served to comfort me during the passing of both mom and dad.


Thank you for your beautiful post. My husband recently stated that he would like to donate his body to science when his time comes and knowing about this program adds a meaningful component to our discussions.


What an intelligent and sensitive post this was, and very helpful. I was tearing up in the first paragraph and it wasn't even my family. I have been seriously thinking about end-of-life issues, not specifically pertaining to my mother, and reading up on cremation and end-of-life decisions. This program provides a comforting reminder that not all anatomical gift programs provide nameless specimens for scientific experiments, but there is a place where the life is honored and respected. That is a relief, and I am very glad you, your parents, and your family were able to participate in such a fine program.

See more comments