Ultimate donation brings life to education in death

By Paul Mayne
September 19, 2013

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Ultimate donationPaul Mayne, Western News
At London’s Woodland Cemetery and Crematorium, a lone headstone honours the memory of the numerous individuals who have donated their bodies to science at Western.


It’s not an easy decision. But the spirit of these donors, and the profound generosity of their gift, leaves many Western students and faculty overwhelmed with admiration and respect. 

“For some people, it’s really easy; they are practical and know it (death) is inevitable and are just planning in advance, knowing it’s not going to happen any time soon,” said Haley Linklater, lab supervisor and body bequeathal coordinator in the Department of Anatomy and Cell Biology.

Despite the introduction of computer modeling and other virtual technologies, medical education and advancements still depend on, in large part, the generosity of the average person who bequeaths their body to science. Students in medicine, dentistry, physical therapy, occupational therapy, kinesiology and other health-related disciplines benefit by gaining a unique understanding of the human body no textbook can teach.

These are students, not physicians, and they are not doing diagnostic post-mortems, but service learning. Dr. Marjorie Johnson, director of Western’s Division of Clinical Anatomy, said body bequeathal is essential for the education of students.

Future health professionals and medical researchers at Western benefit greatly from this generous gift. The donation aids in education and medical research, and contribute to the development of new and better ways of treating patients and disease.

Western takes great pains to protect the privacy and dignity of all bodies that are donated. Students and researchers are only given the age, sex and cause of death of the body they will be studying.

“Through this generous donation, students learn about anatomy and respect for the human body,” Johnson said. “The donors are our greatest teachers.”

On average, 70-80 individuals donate their body to the university each year for educational and training purposes.

“A lot of donors that have struggled in life or have had a specific illness within the family, they will call me and tell me that if they can help anyone else, they want to,” Linklater said. “Most of the time, people will contact us directly or they heard about it from a friend and want to begin the process. The people who are on board are usually adamantly on board; they want to do this.”

She said the program has even had generations of family participate.

When people inquire about the donation process, Linklater sends out a package, which is not legally binding, to share with family – or even perhaps a doctor or lawyer.

“If it’s not the right fit, then we don’t do it. We won’t accept them,” Linklater said. “I will not put people through that wait. We try and figure out the family drama ahead of time.”

That wait, before a loved one’s ashes are returned to the family, can be anywhere from 18 months to three years. Once the educational component of the bequeathal is complete, not all families request the remains of their loved ones for private burial. So, every year for more than five decades, Western honours these individuals with a ceremony and internment at Woodland Cemetery and Crematorium in London.

Rick Vanstone, Woodland grounds superintendent, has seen the success of the program, and the partnership with Western, grow stronger each year – so much so, the university purchased a second lot in 2006.

“Naturally, I think people who do this should be honoured and recognized for their contribution to science,” Vanstone said. “And it is not only the people who donate their bodies we need to thank; it is also their families as well, some who have to wait for a significant time period to receive the cremated remains of their loved ones back so they can complete their interment and get the closure process started again.”

Linklater said families often have their own ceremonies, but are always invited to be a part of the university’s memorial service. “It’s a nice way to say thank you and they (families) think the memorial service is a nice touch,” Linklater said.

Students also play a major role in the service, sharing their appreciation and thanks with the families. Their words, preserved from each ceremony, are truly beautiful.

 “My donor has taught me about anatomy more eloquently than any lecture or text ever could,” said Jacqueline Piggott, MD’11. “I have confidence now in my knowledge of the human body, and I owe this to my donor. As I move forward in my career in medicine, I will never forget his sacrifice. His heart will be my map to all hearts, and in my practice, my memory of his body will be a guide to help me find my way.”

Dale Edwards, MD’14, added the individuals who donate their bodies provide a tremendous gift to the physicians of the future. “Although their lamp has been put out, they have shed light on our medical education,” he said. “They have been wonderful teachers and, in education, have helped to unite our class as a family.”


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