We're Donating Our Bodies to Science

Jessica Topper is an ex-librarian turned rock-n-roll number cruncher. By day, she does bookkeeping for touring rock bands. By night, she creates books of her own. She is the author of four novels from Berkley/Penguin: Louder Than Love, Softer Than Steel, Dictatorship of the Dress, and Courtship of the Cake. Jessica lives in upstate New York, and you can visit her at http://www.jesstopper.com

“We’re donating our bodies to science.”

Somehow, my mother managed to work that sentence into our daily phone conversation one random afternoon. I don’t remember what else we spoke of that day – she had a knack for blending the trivial with the significant, so she could’ve told me about the great bargain she got at Chico’s earlier, or who showed up to her morning yoga class. But I do remember how she delivered this major news: with confidence and conviction. Perhaps that was a bit of relief I detected in her voice as well, over a decision well thought-out and finally made. Mom sounded almost cheerful, giddy.

I wasn’t wholly surprised. This was the couple, after all, who got married on my father’s lunch hour and went out for a cup of coffee afterward. My parents were practical, informed, and smart about their finances. And they weren’t religious, superstitious or sentimental when it came to the thought of “after” – they were enjoying their golden years together in uncluttered simplicity.

But with five kids (three from my mom’s previous marriage and two more from theirs), eight grandchildren and two great-grandchildren, I knew they wanted to take care of things so we wouldn’t have to. And so they were now card-carrying members of an Anatomical Gift Program.

I also wasn’t surprised by the place they chose: The State University of New York at Buffalo was just down the road from where we lived. My father had graduated from there; my brother and I had received degrees from UB as well. And my parents were forever encouraging knowledge gleaned in any form. Our house was filled with books. There was probably much to learn from their bodies. My father was somewhat of a medical miracle, having had Crohn’s Disease that he managed to keep at bay for years with no medication and minimal surgery. My mother was a former smoker who was told during studies her lungs now looked like those of a non-smoker. She also had Sjögren's syndrome, but a mild form of it.

As my mom elaborated on the University’s Anatomical Gift Program and how it worked, I was struck by her personal pronoun usage: “we” this and “we” that, “your father and I” – as if they would arrive at UB’s medical school together on this final journey. Or perhaps it was just my own coping mechanism; I found it oddly comforting to imagine them, side-by-side on tables as students benefited from this most generous teaching gift.

In reality, I knew this was unlikely. Unless they were brought to a swift end while driving to the food co-op, en route to the library or on their daily trip to the gym, they would most likely depart this world at separate times. I didn’t want to speculate who would go first. It was a thought I continually pushed a pin into, far down the timeline. Although my parents were in their late-seventies at the time – and despite their autoimmune issues – they were both strong and healthy, and of sound mind. Long-time vegetarians and exercise fans.

“Okay, Mom. Sounds good,” I said, humoring her. Of course we would honor their wishes when the time came. But that time was a long way off.

Until it wasn’t.

“Are you sitting down?” My mother asked, again over the phone one day. I was not – I was frosting the many batches of cookies she had baked for our upcoming family holiday party, my twelve-year-old daughter by my side. Mom’s back had been hurting, but she chalked it up to all the cooking and preparation for her favorite gathering of the year. She’d also been unable to eat much without feeling uncomfortably full. So she’d gone to her doctor to be checked out.

“I have ovarian cancer. Can you believe it?”

Nope. I couldn’t. No family history. My mom had no ovaries, for heaven’s sake! She’d had a full hysterectomy eighteen years prior. But cancer works in mysterious ways.

I’ll spare you the details. The oncologist predicted two years, and we got about two years with her. Some quality time, some not. She decided when she was done trying treatments, and she decided when to move into Hospice. Her Declaration of Consent forms, signed long ago, were on file, waiting to be put into action.

As difficult as the end-of-life experience was for her loved ones to bear witness, the donating process was dignified and seamless. We said our last goodbyes. Had our final moments. The University arranged for transportation – in fact, they would travel up to one hundred miles if needed, with no expense to the family. From there, we knew that her body would be used to teach medical, dental and allied health students, or possibly in continuing education programs for physicians. What we didn’t know was exactly when, but we were told most bodies were used and cremated within eighteen months.

No funeral. No service with speeches. These were my mother’s wishes from the get-go, and they did not waver during her final lucid days. “Gather the family at your house after if you want to.” Which was what we did. Was it enough? Was it closure? Tough to say during those brutal first days, when everything feels so numb. But the saying “in good hands” kept occurring to me.

Of the options given by the Program for internment of remains, my mother chose to have her ashes buried at the small non-denominational cemetery on campus. Other options included free-of-charge internment at a local Catholic cemetery if one was of that faith, or ashes being returned to next of kin, a friend of the donor, or to a cemetery of one’s choice for private internment with prior arrangements.

The University (its medical school faculty, campus ministry and students) holds a memorial service at the campus cemetery every eighteen months or so, and invites the family members. Students have been known to write songs and poems, expressing their gratitude for the donations. There is a section of the cemetery dedicated to the Program, and for each service held, a plaque is placed. While it doesn’t list the names, it lists the time period of donations made. And is a site loved ones are welcome to visit anytime – a place to leave flowers, stones, or other tokens of remembrance.

On Thanksgiving 2015, ten days after my mother’s death, my father, brother and I decided to scope out the cemetery. It was a mild day for upstate New York, with lots of sun. My mom’s favorite kind of day. There hadn’t been a memorial service there in a while, and we knew the service in memory of her wouldn’t occur for a while. But it was peaceful visiting the site, and looking at all the markers from years past, honoring those who had chosen, in life, the same final path after death. The same decision my mother and father had come to, together.

We’re donating our bodies to science.

How was my dad feeling now? What was he thinking? Had this demystified the experience in any way? Reinforced his own choice?

And will I make this same decision myself, somewhere down the road? Follow in my parents’ footsteps, one last time?

I’m proud of them, my first and favorite teachers. Knowing that they will continue to spread knowledge even after they’re gone – not only to me, with how they lived their lives and viewed the world– but to strangers as well, is a comforting testament.

I’m not quite ready to commit yet, although I do appreciate all I have learned about, and from, their gift to the Anatomical Program. I’m glad to know it is an option.

For now, I’ll just keep it a pushpin possibility in my own timeline.

For more information about the State University of New York at Buffalo’s Anatomical Gift Program: http://www.smbs.buffalo.edu/agp/