Remembering the Person Behind the Cadaver

While the healthcare field depends on full-body donations to push forward in medical research, the topic isn’t easily discussed

Pablo Picasso didn’t learn to paint a masterpiece by simply visiting his local art museum. Bill Gates didn’t become an expert in programming by reading a textbook. Similarly, physicians can’t fully understand the human body by dissecting animals or studying plastic models — and yet, many wish that they could.

Gross anatomy is a key aspect of medical school; however, medical students and long-term physicians alike struggle to talk about the cadavers, or full human bodies donated for the purpose of education and research, which medical education so fully depends upon.

Yet, cadavers aren’t at all new to the medical field. In fact, the use of deceased human bodies to further medical research dates back to at least 200 BCE, and before that, physicians dissected larger animals such as apes to obey laws prohibiting human dissection.1 Still, cutting into a person’s body is difficult, if not impossible, for healthcare professionals — both those in training and those who graduated long ago — to accept as normal, no matter how crucial it is to their education.2

Unconscious Effort

Because of the difficulty that medical students have in working with cadavers, they typically make an unconscious effort to distance themselves from the person in front of them, focusing instead solely on the human body. Although the cadaver is unclothed and uncovered, students often cover the body’s face and hands, as they are the most distinctly human parts of the cadaver.2 Further, many students (67.8% according to a 2013 study) make up nicknames for the cadavers to “acknowledge the cadaver’s personhood, while psychologically shielding themselves enough to be comfortable with the dissection.”3

However, these nicknames are not just lighthearted ways to refer to a cadaver. Many of these names tie back to an unflattering feature of the cadaver, and the playful nicknaming is reminiscent of “cadaver antics” that used to be commonplace in medical schools when students would make jokes, remove body parts from the laboratory and pull various pranks using the cadavers.4 This gallows humor, though initially seen as helpful to the student, is undeniably disrespectful to the donor and his family — and can ultimately do more harm than good for the medical students themselves.

While distancing oneself from the personhood of the cadaver may seem like a safe, reasonable decision, it can be a critical mistake. When medical students learn early on to protect themselves emotionally by focusing on the body rather than the personhood of the body, they may begin to do the same when working with living patients. As Jerry Vannatta, former executive dean of the University of Oklahoma College of Medicine, told The Atlantic, “Instead of referring to Mr. Jones in room 306, [physicians might say,] ‘Let’s go see the terminal in 306. Let’s go see the lung,’ referring to the patient as their sick organ.”2

Making Strides

With this in mind, many medical schools have made strides towards encouraging students to remember the person behind the cadaver. As of 2013, 95.5% of American medical schools held memorial ceremonies for the donors.4 During these ceremonies, which vary among different colleges, the students who worked with the cadavers are given the opportunity to pay their respects to their donors through prayer, music, poetry and more.5-8 Additionally, some — albeit few — of these services invite the families of the donors to participate, occasionally even allowing students to introduce themselves to the family of the donor they worked with throughout the entire gross anatomy course.2

Although cadavers are admittedly crucial parts of education, they are so much more. In Thailand, cadavers are regarded as “ajarn yai,” or “great teachers,” and are highly regarded in Thai culture.4 It’s difficult for medical students to force themselves to see their cadavers as people rather than educational tools, but to eventually become the best possible physicians, they must remind themselves that the person in front of them is just that: a person.

Many American medical schools are pushing students to regard their cadavers as their first patients, and so they should.4 Truly, a person under general anesthesia is just as much at the mercy of their surgeon as a cadaver.9 At the moment, many patients view the healthcare industry as “sterile and un-empathetic,” largely because of the pressure that professionals face to emotionally distance themselves from their patients.2

By training physicians early on to see patients first and foremost as people, the healthcare industry can change this view and, by creating a compassionate culture, encourage patients to trust their physicians. When patients trust their physicians, they will be comfortable sharing more information, enabling physicians to provide the best possible care.

Just as a career in healthcare begins in school, so does a change to the current culture of the healthcare industry. It’s important for medical students to remember the personhood of their cadavers. After all, they are their first patients — and perhaps even their best teachers.


  1. Science Museum. Dissection.
  2. Allen, J. Learning empathy from the dead. The Atlantic. 2015.
  3. Williams, A., et al. Medical students’ reactions to anatomic dissection and the phenomenon of cadaver naming. Anatomical Sciences Education. 2013;7(3):169-180. doi: 10.1002/ase.1391.
  4. Jones, T., et al. Honoring our donors: a survey of memorial surveys in United States anatomy programs. Anatomical Sciences Education. 2013;7(3):219-23. doi: 10.1002/ase.1413.
  5. Rotermund, M. SLU medical students honor body donors with interfaith service. Saint Louis University. 2015.
  6. UC Denver School of Medicine. Donor memorial ceremony. 2016.
  7. UNC Health Care and UNC School of Medicine. 2014 cadaver memorial service draws big crowd. 2014.
  8. Bastyr University. Honoring cadavers after a year of learning. 2012.
  9. Bhatt, K. Where does your cadaver come from? In-Training. 2015.

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