Giving of Themselves

Those who donate their bodies to IU School of Medicine help prepare healers to treat patients—a gift medical students strive to recognize.
A medical student hands a rose to the family of a donor the Anatomical Education Program.

Each year, the Anatomical Education Program hosts a memorial service for those who willed their bodies. In 2019, the event drew more than 200 people. Students took turns reading the names of donors, while family and friends stand to be recognized with a rose.

EACH YEAR, roughly 400 people in Indiana bequeath to science a unique and personal gift: their bodies.

With the decision, they opt to become a vital teaching tool for future health care professionals, including medical students at Indiana University School of Medicine. The impact of their generosity is felt through the care provided to patients.

“People want their doctor to know what they’re doing,” said Andrew Deane, PhD, who oversees anatomical education at the School of Medicine. “But they may not know this is how they get that start.”

Donating one’s body to the Anatomical Education Program, which is based at IU, is simple. A donor completes and signs a one-page form and returns it to Kelsey T. Byers, a licensed funeral director who oversees the logistics of the program. Confirmation comes in an enrollment card that can be slipped into a wallet.

The very existence of Byers’ job, created in 2000, illustrates just how far the process of body donation has evolved.

Over a century ago, there was an unseemly and almost criminal element to obtaining bodies for dissection. Some for-profit medical schools, including one in Indianapolis, purchased cadavers pillaged by grave robbers. Even if a body was legally procured, the person who once animated it was often lost to history.

Until the early 1960s, the Anatomical Education Program had the right of first refusal for the bodies of indigent deaths, inmates who died in state prisons, and patients who had been committed to mental institutions. Families were rarely notified, and ashes were never returned. That changed in 1963, when the program began relying on willed donations began.

“There’s obviously more transparency and more consent now,” Byers said.

Donations are not just made willingly, but a state board provides oversight. Byers’ presence also reflects a professional approach to every step of accepting a body.

Upon notification of a donor’s death, the program must obtain the additional consent of the family. Before a vehicle is dispatched, Byers and others on her staff work with a hospital or nursing facility to provide the family time to grieve. If memorial services will occur, Byers coordinates closely with funeral home staff.

“We try to be very accommodating with our families and very flexible as far as making sure they have the time they need to say goodbye,” Byers said. “Once their loved one comes to us at the school, I don’t have the facilities where you can change your mind and say you want to have a viewing. If they bypass a funeral home, that’s going to be it.”

Byers also handles other bureaucratic matters: filing death certificates, obtaining transportation permits, and passing on precise embalming instructions to funeral directors. But she doesn’t just shuffle paperwork. Families can face a two-year wait before receiving ashes. During this period, Byers is their sole link to someone they hold dear.

Often, conversations about mundane tasks, such as notifying Social Security, evolve into Byers listening as a person sorts through grief.

“It reminds me of my own experiences with death and loss, so it doesn’t ever become routine,” she said. “Most of the time, the family has gone through a long process, so it’s easy to have that conversation and commiserate.”

Byers is also the master of being polite but firm. At times, family and friends ask if they can visit the program where a body has been sent. It’s a request she cannot grant.

While families can’t walk through a lab’s double doors, the program makes a concerted effort to honor a donor’s generosity.

Each year, the program hosts a memorial service for those who willed their bodies. In 2019, the event drew more than 200 people to IUPUI’s Campus Center. It offers students from the health profession programs the chance to express their gratitude. They also take turns reading the names of donors, while family and friends stand and are recognized with a rose.

For those whose ashes were not returned to a family, a hearse transports them to Crown Hill cemetery for burial.

“Every year, I hear from people who didn’t expect us to have any recognition,” Byers said. “They were blown away by what the students share with them.”

To learn more about the process of body donation, contact Kelsey Byers at ktbyers@iu.edu or 317-274-7840.

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The views expressed in this content represent the perspective and opinions of the author and may or may not represent the position of Indiana University School of Medicine.
Author

Matthew Harris

Matthew Harris is a communications specialist in the Office of Gift Development. Before joining the School of Medicine in 2015, he was a reporter at newspapers in Pennsylvania, Arkansas, and Louisiana. He currently lives in Indianapolis with his fiancee and two basset hounds.