We all benefit from medical training that includes the study of real bodies. Yet the emotional hurdles of body donation for donors, their families and medical staff are not insignificant. Nevertheless, I consider donating my body and here is why.
1. My initial ignorance
I remember well, when I first heard of body donation many years ago.
My initial thought was, that the person in question must have disliked their family. Why else would you deprive family and friends of a funeral, burial or whatever ritual was ‘the norm’ in their social or cultural setting? In those days I had no need to think much about my own mortality or death.
2. My recent experience of body donation
In early 2017 I sat at the bedside of a good friend. Together with her mother we talked about preparations for her death and how, what she was leaving behind, could be put to good use.
It was easy, yet not without pain, to talk about death and dying.
On 18th May 2018 I attended the annual Service of Thanksgiving organised by the London Anatomy Office and hosted by the Brighton and Sussex Medical School for those who donated their bodies for medical education, training and research.
I counted over 300 donor names and the 1,200-seater St George Cathedral in London was packed with family and friends remembering those who had made this choice, including my friend.
Medical students, teaching staff and spiritual representatives of various medical schools and University of London colleges were also in attendance.
Thoughtful and thought-provoking speeches were made reflecting the gratitude for and importance of body donation for medical training.
Each body donation benefits the training of up to 50 medical students.
It was also acknowledged that such donations can bring difficulties for those left behind. Bodies can be kept for up to 2 years.
Like in my friend’s case, there was no funeral after her death. We had to come up with our own rituals of grieving and remembering.
3. Giving vs depriving
We all can make public-spirited gestures throughout our life time. However big or small, the impact will be felt. Many of us want to do the same when preparing for our death. Body donation for medical education is one such gesture, which can have many reasons and varied emotional responses among those who opt for it and those left behind.
Donating one’s body is an important act of giving. As has been argued, virtual bodies using 3D scans my be useful but cannot compare to the real thing.
Yet the act of giving can also come with emotional hurdles, taboos and stigma, which need to be addressed to make body donation more acceptable and less traumatic.
Because such an act of giving can also be felt as an act of depriving and taking away.
My friend had opted for body donation, as it is a befitting way of ending a life that had been public-spirited and full of varied contributions to the good of all.
My own initial consideration of body donation had been for practical as well as utilitarian reasons.
With family and friends across countries and cultures whatever burial ritual I opt for, it will not ‘satisfy’ all. Donating my body would solve that dilemma and put my body to good use.
I have also benefitted greatly and so far been kept alive by the medical skills of others. As I am facing up to mastectomy, I find it reassuring that medical training includes real bodies. Why would I not consider making my own small gesture and contribution?
How selfish would it be not to, and to leave that choice to others?
Alas, what may make sense to me and others, may leave others aghast, angry, confused, embarrassed and finding it difficult to grief.
That is why talking about our choices ahead of death is essential.
4. The unspoken horror
But how do you talk to those close to you about donating your body, without leaving out one of the biggest hurdles of acceptance?
It is not just that religious, cultural and social norms of burial and grieving rituals cannot be fulfilled. It is what will ultimately happen to our bodies, that is difficult to think and talk about.
Most speakers during the Thanksgiving ceremony referred to “studying” the bodies.
Yet we also know that studying bodies involves cutting and dissecting.
For many, including my mother, this is a violation, which would cut right through their memories of us, making peaceful grieving very challenging, indeed. I, too, still struggle to let go of the mental image and visceral pain, where my own body and that of my friend is concerned.
And then there is the impact on medical students, which I had not considered before.
Katie Clifford, a 2nd year medical student from the Brighton and Sussex Medical School, gave a very touching personal reading, which thankfully addressed this exact issue.
While ‘we’ (those who donate, family and friends) may wonder about ‘the other’ (the medical student and staff and their attitude to our bodies and to us), Katie spoke about the other side of the same coin.
What does it feel like for her, the medical student, to meet ‘the other’ – the stranger, she knows nothing of, but who has donated their body, for her to dissect and study?
“Your heart had stopped, your soul departed …. Where had you gone? What had you seen?”
She described how she would stick to the science, the dissection notes, tracing “the networks of arteries and veins and capillaries, nerves, nodes and fibres”.
At one point she would realise that she knew the stranger’s body better than her own.
Katie connected her own feelings of initial discomfort and fear of the unknown, with doing the best she can for the sake of her own training and the donation that had been made:
“This was more than science, or anatomy, or academia. This was about life. And death. And giving. And selflessness.”
5. We need to talk
In my experience as a therapist and a human being concerned with mortality and grief, I know that talking frankly about dying and death can ultimately support the grieving process – before and after death has occurred.
It does help with making peace with what may have happened and what may lie ahead.
Sharing such conversations is a gift we can give to others, and an important act to hand down across the generations. The same applies to acts of donating one’s body.
And it is equally important that the emotional and psychological aspects of mortality, dying and death are considered in medical training.
No doubt, aspects of training like dissecting bodies can be stressful and distressing, but there is no way around it.
Talking frankly about feelings, coming to terms and making peace with such difficult yet necessary tasks, can only but usefully shape and strengthen personal and professional development of medical students and their later practice.
6. All in all
If ever there had been any doubt in my mind about going ahead with my wish for donating my own body to medical education this honest and generous gift of a medical student convinced me, that it is all worthwhile.
But at then end, it is and remains a very personal choice.
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