This week I conducted nine funerals. All on the same morning. Several times a year I take funeral services at a crematorium for people who wished after their death to donate their bodies to medical education.
Anatomy is taught to medical students and other health professionals using bodies donated in this way. In the anatomy class students watch teaching presentations with short film clips and graphics shown on plasma screens around the room. Then they examine the actual body in front of them identifying the features just presented to them in the lesson. Then it is back to the screens for the next part of the lesson.
Donated bodies are held for up to two years before being released for cremation. This leaves the relatives and friends of the person who has died with an unconventional extended period of between the death and the final acts of a funeral and then laying the ashes to rest.
The Society of Anatomists holds an annual service of thanksgiving and this is attended by many of the families of the 400 or so people who donate their bodies each year. Families handle this extended period in different ways. Many organise memorial services and events close to the time of death. For some there is no need to attend a funeral service two years later. Others want to attend but wish the service to be formal, while others wish to personalise the service. For a few this funeral is the main ritual moment of saying good-bye. Because there is a such a range of approaches I write to all the families before the service to begin a conversation about what they would like in the short service. From this come requests for me to use poems, readings and prayers. Many people bring a favourite track of music on a CD. In contrast others request just ‘a simple formal service’. Some families are not able to attend but by sending me copies of the tributes read out at a memorial service or short biographies.
For me there is a certain satisfaction in the craft required and used to tailor these services to such different needs. It is good also to stand with the families and convey the thanks and appreciation of medical students and teaching staff for the generous donations that have been made.