My mom died about two years ago, and even though she generally avoided doctors, one thing she always said was that she wanted her body to be donated to science, medicine, whatever, because she wanted the world to get some use out of her mortal remains, and because she thought the whole funeral industry was a racket and a ripoff, and because the idea of a tombstone in a graveyard or a box of dust in an urn perpetually stored on a mantel or in a drawer in an outdoor filing cabinet was not for her. Plus my mom was a maximalist, what I’m going to declare as an organized hoarder. Her apartment was full of stuff, not so much that you couldn’t move around, but definitely full, and she always had some sort of kitchen implement or furniture item she was trying to give me or get help moving to somebody else’s house. She loved to find things for people. Why shouldn’t her physical form be part of that collection and distribution of items?
I saw my mom for the last time after I got a call from a police officer, who had been called in by building management. More accurately, I saw my mom’s body for the last time, seated in her lounge chair in her seventh-floor apartment, facing the window where she would watch the sun rise each morning, a dish of peeled but uneaten tangerines on the table next to her chair. She always talked about how much she loved the view, a panorama of Baltimore from the Key Bridge past the Inner Harbor on the left, over to Morrell Park and beyond on the right.
The police officer was sitting in the apartment as well, waiting for a medical examiner to arrive. The medical examiner would check the body in order to initially determine a cause of death, and then the body would be transported to the morgue, unless I wanted it brought to a funeral parlor, I think I was told, but my brain was not paying exact attention because I realized it was BODY TO SCIENCE time. How was I gonna do that?
After the examiner said my mom appeared to have died of natural causes, a heart attack, and that she had been dead less than seven hours, I think he said, I started flipping through my mom’s many notebooks full of phone numbers and business cards. In there I found some info on the Anatomical Gift Program of Albany Medical College, and they pointed me to the Anatomy Gifts Registry.
The person at the Anatomy Gifts Registry answered the phone directly, without any preliminary touch-tone choices, which was helpful because I was on my mom’s rotary-dial phone. They told me they would set up the transfer of her body from the city morgue to wherever else it might need to be moved, to be of some use.
First, the person had some questions. They asked me about the cause of death, an unavoidably paradoxical question about her health—you know, before she became deceased—did she have any diseases, how tall was she, and how much did she weigh. Oh, shit, how much did she weigh? I realized at that moment that not every body the owner of which wanted it to go to Science goes to Science! The body has to qualify!
My mom was fat. She had been losing weight with age, so she wasn’t as fat as she used to be, but I was immediately struggling with my feeling about my mom being chronically overweight for so many years, and I kinda got into a spot where I was fudging how much my mom weighed and how tall she was, and it was SO PERFECTLY something my mom would be doing, trying to get by some Official Guidelines to get something done. Last Wishes! I was trying to Move a Body! It was 100 percent something my mom would do, and I am very much my mom. So my thought process was: I’ll get ‘em to take the body, and then they can decide what to do with it. I don’t know how much Ma weighs, jeez, she didn’t ever want me to tell people her age, now I’m ratting her out on her weight? They have a scale at the place, right? She used to be 5’10” but she got old and shrank a little, I’ll tell ’em 5’9” and they can figure it out!
The whole time my wife and I were sitting in the apartment waiting for the medical examiner, I kept looking at my mom, sitting in the chair, her head tilted back, she could have been asleep, but something was missing. She wasn’t there. All that was left was the stuff in her apartment and her voice in my head.
It felt a little weird seeing the medical guy open up a black body bag, and with the help of the cop, quickly and skillfully get the body out of the chair, into the bag, and onto a wheeled stretcher. All I could think was I hoped they didn’t think she weighed a lot. We took the elevator down to the entrance and they loaded the stretcher into a truck and off it went.
I didn’t second-guess anything about what my mom had said she wanted done with her body. I briefly thought about the whole thing I’ve seen with the Dear Departed; the funeral parlor, the viewing, the funeral service, the burial. None of that was for my mom, or, as people like to say, for the people she left behind, you know, all the ritual and stuff as a comfort to those still living. My brother and I knew we would follow instructions and do what Ma wanted, and I guess that’s the comfort part for us, doing that and staying friends as well as brothers, since that was something she couldn’t do with her sister, be friends, and she always told us how happy it made her to know my brother and I were OK. As for ritual, my mom loved diners, and all she ever said she wanted by way of memoriam was for people in a diner to raise a cuppa coffee in her honor, and I let people know about that, and I continue to do so myself and always will. I bought a death notice, and we had a mass said and a candle lit at a church she used to attend in her home town, even though the last time I took her to a Catholic church service in Baltimore she got pissed off at the priest, who went out of his way to say some negative stuff about homosexuality.
The person from the Anatomy Gifts Registry I had talked with on the phone told me they’d be as transparent as I wanted about what happened with her. Some people don’t want to hear about what happened to their loved one’s cadaver. Sometimes for various reasons, a body is not used, so maybe nothing would ever be reported, and I prepared myself for that, but if there was anything to be reported, I wanted to know.
Every once in a while, I’d wonder what had happened to her body. At first, I pushed it out of my head, thinking eventually I’d hear something, but eventually I sort of started to think maybe the body didn’t make the cut for Medical Science, and so it was cremated, which I would have been perfectly fine with, because at least we tried.
Last week, though, I got a letter in the mail:
Anatomy Gifts Registry works in collaboration with researchers and educators worldwide in an effort to foster the development of cutting edge surgical device technologies, encourage advancement in disease research, promote new treatment and therapeutic options for patients, and support hands-on training of medical professionals and students. Your loved one made a significant contribution to the following research programs:
It was a very nice letter with an expression of condolences, commending the donation, and there were a series of bullet-point paragraphs explaining, without going into tremendous detail, how my mom’s particular contribution was advancing medicine. I figured at the very least they’d have used my mom’s body for some anatomy practice or something, so it was great to see some accounting of specific actions.
Your loved one’s gift has also assisted the development of safer cardiac surgery techniques used to treat patients with arrhythmias or heart failure . . .
A group of orthopedic surgeons attended a training lab to help them provide treatment options to their patients with back pain and injury that yield quicker post-surgical recovery time, limited scarring, and reduced long-term physical therapy . . .
That kind of blew my mind, that they were using my mom’s spine for some sort of procedure training?!?
[Y]our loved one’s donation also facilitated in the biomechanical testing of how blood supply is carried through our leg to help with the research and development of new procedures to treat bone death due to an interruption in the blood supply . . .
Har! How was I not supposed to picture my mom’s leg, on its own, in a lab someplace? I could hear her in my head: “My what? Leg? Oh, good, good! Tell them to take the rest, what am I gonna do with it?
. . . the training of physicians on the minimally invasive removal of blood vessels needed for the repair of the heart when the arteries around the heart are blocked . . .
Crazy! Some surgeons or almost-surgeons got to practice “using high tech camera systems and specialized tools to avoid large surgical openings,” which, I was told, “greatly reduces the healing time, pain, and risk of infection for these very high risk individuals who have undergone open heart surgery.” Even though she thought going to the doctor was a waste of time—even when she slipped on ice and broke her damn arm—I know my mom would have been happy to hear she might be helping someone.
This one stood out, so I’m going to include the entire paragraph:
The training of physicians was made possible by a medical device company on minimally invasive repair of the foot and ankle. This type of instructional event hosted by the representatives of the company who are available to the physician, really helps them understand the device and procedure, and ensures that the physician will have confidence in performing the operation on their patients, as well as improve their results. This training is also so important as joint pain can be debilitating and greatly decrease the quality of life for those affected, or cause use of medications that can have significant and even detrimental side effects. Surgical intervention can significantly reduce or eliminate this pain and allow these persons to resume activities and regain independence.
“Representatives of the company,” eh? OK, sure, some sales reps, ha! My mom would definitely look sideways at this one, but she always liked that quote about how nothing ever gets done in this country until a dollar is made. Hardly a month goes by that I don’t refresh that aphorism in my own mental narrative, all you have to do is read the news.
This final one really got me:
Lastly, the training of physicians was made possible on the creation of vascularized tissue flaps for use in reconstruction of an individual’s anatomy that may have been affected by trauma, surgical resection of cancer or other deformity, or other major surgery. This specialized surgery is so important for restoring normal anatomy and can have a significant impact on not only the healing process, but the afflicted individual’s self-esteem and well-being.
Wow, huh? We have to help heal people! Even if I’d never heard anything back from the Anatomy Gifts Registry, I was glad I followed through on my mom’s idea to submit her corporeal form for practical re-use, and I plan on carrying on the tradition with my own remains. Leaving the body to science seems sort of clinical and unsentimental, and the details of the process could make it sound even more unceremonious. But it turned out to be a nice coda to my mom’s time here with us, and if everyone has their own different idea of the right way to honor the dead, I’ve ended up with a wonderful sustained echo of her in my head and heart.