Anatomy Thanksgiving Day: Meeting Families Who Donated Cadavers

*Warning: this post contains explicit details about cadavers. 

Last Thursday, I attended Bristol’s annual Anatomy Thanksgiving Event in the Great Hall of the Wills Memorial Building. It was a beautiful service, giving the opportunity for students and staff to express their appreciation and thanks to the families of those who donated their bodies to the Centre of Anatomy.

I did not know what to expect, debating what colours were appropriate to wear – it was not exactly a grieving event, as this was explicitly made clear during the opening remarks, and definitely not a full-blown celebration of education in anatomy. Confusing, really.

I go for middle-ground attire (nothing too flashy, nothing too dismal), and upon entering the Great Hall, we were each given beautiful stemmed white peony flowers. And then the service commenced with an opening speech from the head of the centre for applied anatomy, followed by a free church chaplain. There were poems recited, and melancholy music, one filled with lingering chords and a simplicity that was so stunning yet simultaneously emotionally overwhelming at the same time. Members of the centre for applied anatomy went up to give their thanks, each with their own scripts – how difficult it must be, I thought, to write such a speech. There’s only so much you could say, a limited scope of vocabulary appropriate to stay clear of offence and any triggers.

I had been rather solemn and contemplative at this point, more out of appreciation and common courtesy for the opportunity I had to learn from cadavers, but it did not really hit me until we were invited to put the flowers of thanksgiving in one of the five differently shaped glass vases at the front. We formed two lanes: those putting flowers in the vase and those who had finished, and I was trailing back to my seat once I was done, humming quietly to the song the choir was singing. A lady who was walking back had eyes brimming with tears, and in the other lane was I presume her friend, because they held each other’s hands. And suddenly, they embraced – the lady cried, and I could see her fingers clutching her handkerchief trembling. They stayed like this for a while, even as the line halted just for them. It was a standstill moment, where receiver and the giver finally aligned, and nobody would dare break the fragility of it. I was stunned.

Retrospectively, maybe the cadavers in our anatomy sessions were not treated with the uttermost respect perhaps required – we’d stick our fingers in their mouths out of curiosity, interlaced our fingers with the cadaver hands in intimate pretence, tugged on the tendons to make individual fingers move to scare our friends, playfully hit each other with a femur, stroke the calves (gastrocnemius) saying “#GOALS”, open up the transversely-cut penis aggressively in front of the guys as a joke, and so on. I’m guilty of having done all the above. The demonstrators, being experts in their field, were also very accustomed to the cadavers and sometimes did not use gloves before sticking their hands in the abdominal cavity of a cadaver, or would just lightly scold us for inappropriately playing around with the limbs. And I know this can be seen kind of terribly, that we’re supposed to be treating them with more respect – after all, these cadavers were once walking, had families, and had a life. The families I had met at the event, remember their loved ones as breathing, whilst we saw them dripping into collection tins under the metal tables. But I guess this was our coping mechanism: a glazed superficial persona we switch to once we wake up and smell the formaldehyde; the clumsy tightrope walk of first year medical students wondering where along the scale of total emotional isolation and hearts-on-our-sleeves we should be. I know if I think too much about this cadaver as a person, somebody who once harboured memories I’ll never know of, the face may terrify me more than I think it will. I know it’s kind of sick, almost sadistic, that we think this way. But we’re just humans trying to cope.

Once the ceremony was over, we all went into a backroom with sandwiches, tea, coffee, and other wonderful tidbits were served. This was the time where we had the opportunity to talk to the families and thank them – this, by far, had to be the most difficult situation to initiate a conversation in. I drew so many blanks as to how I should begin: thanks for donating the body of your loved one? Thanks for helping us learn better because anatomy is the most exciting part of the week? Thanks for letting us benefit from the bodies? None of the phrases sounded right in my head – either too blunt, too crude, too insensitive. I ended up saying something along the lines of, “Thank you for coming today, giving us an opportunity to express our gratitude for donating the body of your loved one – anatomy really enriches and benefits our practical learning, and I hope I can give back just as you have given to us.” The responses from the families were thankfully not raging anger against me (I was fully expecting this to happen at some point, because I 100% thought I would get my words wrong). Instead, some would immediately ask, “Do you get spooked seeing the faces?”, some would thank us graciously, some would jump into the story of how their loved one died – however, every single family I talked to always were surprised to hear that anatomy was our favourite subject of the week, which I was, in return, surprised by. Because it was the honest truth: anatomy is so vastly different from any high school subject, and it is a true privilege to see textbook prose come to life (ironically). Everything I said was genuine. I was happy to have told the families this, because it really did make them smile when I told them how much it benefited and enriched the program to have real cadavers to study from. One lady even said, “Well then, maybe I shall donate my body, too!” One family said they did not even know their loved one had already signed papers to donate their body to the university and did so without discussion, and it understandably took them a while to get over that fact, but were more than happy to hear us, the students, were learning from the cadavers.

The service was unlike any other, unique in its intent and beautiful in its approach. I RSVPed the event, entering with a “Oh dear, what am I doing, I’ve seen your loved one sprawled on a table with weird smells” mindset, but I walked away from Will’s Memorial enriched with a feeling of peace and even more respect. Maybe medical, dentistry and vet students won’t completely stop picking the noses of the cadavers or giggling when studying the urogenital & anogenital region, but I whole-heartedly assure you, we truly appreciate the opportunities we get in the dissection room that help us gain knowledge. We’re still learning how to deal with cadavers, as well as figuring out what mentality we should embody. But there is definitely nothing more we want to do than try our best to be good future doctors.



Despite having examined juvenile skulls frequently in the past anatomy sessions, I am still always in awe at how breathtakingly light and fragile they are. And as I trace my fingers over the fontanelles in amazement, I’m constantly thinking to myself,

“This will never get old.”