Anatomy, Cadavers, and The Art of the Obituary

On the first day of anatomy lab, you can feel it in the air. Whether it’s excitement or anxiety or terror, emotions are running high among the first-year medical students. They wonder what the cadavers will look like, what they will feel like, and who were these people that so generously donated their bodies to science.

But after a few weeks, those feelings fade as routine takes over. For many students, anatomy lab becomes a fourhour formaldehyde-scented class, just another piece of the grueling schedule in the medical school curriculum.

It’s a common theme in literature written by doctors, says Bethany Kette (M’20) who is on the board of Georgetown Arts & Medicine, a student group, and on the Literature and Medicine Track at the School of Medicine. “The awareness that your cadaver was an actual person turns into, ‘Oh, just another assignment.’ It just doesn’t hit you anymore.”

That’s why Kette enlisted Emily Langer (C’06), obituary writer for The Washington Post, to teach an obituary workshop to a group of 25 first-year medical students. Langer led a variety of creative writing exercises for the students to reflect on their time in anatomy lab, and imagine fictional lives for their donors that would aid them in writing actual obituaries.

Langer stressed that obituaries are not about death, but rather about life on the occasion of someone’s death. “You’re here because you want to understand the life of someone you came to know so well in death,” she said.

In order to write an obituary about someone, you have to know about that person’s life. However, the only information medical students are given about their cadaver is age and the cause of death.

“Originally, this workshop was going to help us write strictly fictional obituaries,” says Kette. But when she mentioned the idea to Mark Zavoyna, director of the cadaver lab, he suggested they ask families if they would want to be interviewed by medical students to write real obituaries. Several families agreed.

Students conducted interviews and then wrote tributes to the donors, which were then read to families at the Anatomical Donor Memorial Mass in May.

Kette’s obituary for a donor and alumna can be found below.