I delivered this eulogy alongside other medical student performers today at the annual Celebration of Remembrance ceremony of the Philadelphia Humanity Gifts Registry, the organization that coordinates the donation of bodies for medical education. The event was also written about and photographed by a local health news program. Students and teachers from Philadelphia medical schools were in attendance, but the audience was largely made up of the loved ones of donors. Many traveled great distances to come remember and celebrate their family member or friend who had passed away. Some discussed their grief with me afterwards, and many painted beautiful pictures of what their spouse, parent, sibling, or child used to be like. Some said the ceremony made them want to sign up to donate their own body one day. I saw many shedding tears in the audience as I sat on stage waiting to give my speech and listened to my classmates perform a beautiful rendition of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” I was particularly moved by one middle-aged woman who, red-faced and crying, was being comforted by her young son, maybe 6 or 7 years old, who was desperately trying to make her laugh. Moments like this always renew my sense of gratitude that I am able to work in a field that lets me remember what it means to be human. It was a privilege to be able to impart to the loved ones of our donors the feeling of immense gratitude I have whenever I think about anatomy class and what it takes to donate one’s body. I will never truly know the living person our cadaver once was, but I hope that I connected with her former life in some way through this event.
When we start to think about death, we inevitably start to think about life: how much control we have over what happens in our lives, how much control we have over our successes and failures, or how much control we have over the quality, length, and legacy of our lives. Control. Control is a lot of what we think about when we fear death in the abstract.
But when you talk to someone who watched a loved one pass away, or you sit with someone in their last moments, or maybe even you, yourself, are in the situation of possibly nearing your last breath, things change. What people talk about, once they’ve accepted death, once they expect it, rarely seems to be about “control.” Instead, there is acceptance, and perhaps a wish to have controlled less—to have given more to relationships with friends and family, followed dreams that didn’t guarantee success, expressed one’s whole self without trying to package it into a more appealing version. In fact it seems that it is only when death draws near that we figure out how to live life.
But these lessons are passed on, and if we are smart, we will listen to them.
Those of us who are medical students, gathered here today, had the great privilege of receiving the last, final lesson of the dying. A lesson taught to us, just us, after death. The lesson that no textbook, no professor, no computer could ever teach us. People stayed on in this world for just a little while longer to become our teachers—one last act of selflessness. It takes great courage to donate one’s own body or that of a loved one to the humanity gifts registry. It takes trust in knowing that this final lesson of the person will be revered and treasured. And it takes great selflessness and humility in believing that even in death, we should endeavor to benefit the living.
I want the family members of the donors to know that we students, young as we are, fully recognize the significance of that gift. We know that even as we learned, you grieved.
We want you to know that we grieved, too.
As we become doctors, I hope we keep with us these lessons we had the privilege of learning, about the body and the way it works. But I also hope we retain the gratitude, the lesson of selflessness, the lesson of courage. I hope we will remember that we cannot control all outcomes, but we can do our best to appreciate the relationships we nurture and the strengths we have. And eventually we will figure out how we, too, can sacrifice some part of ourselves to help others.