Obituary Writing Workshop Breathes Life Into Anatomy Lab

April 23, 2017—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, wondering what will the cadavers look like? Feel like? And who were these people that so generously donated their bodies to science?

But after just a few weeks, those feelings fade as routine takes over. Anatomy lab becomes a four-hour formaldehyde-scented class. For most students, over time, the cadavers start to feel less like individuals and more like just a collection of muscles, fat and bone.

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 the Literature and Medicine Track at Georgetown’s 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, an obituary writer for The Washington Post, to teach an obituary writing workshop to M1s. About 25 medical students gathered on a Thursday evening to hear from a woman whose full-time job is humanizing people who have died.

Encouraging family members to share their stories

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

"Originally, this workshop was going to help us write strictly fictional obituaries," said Kette. "For example, my cadaver has tiny muscles, except for the muscles in her forearms and wrists, which are very strong. So we were going to say that she was a champion knitter."

But when Kette mentioned the idea to Mark Zavoyna, director of the cadaver lab, he suggested asking the families if they would want to be interviewed by medical students for a real obituary. So far, three families have said yes.

This didn't surprise Langer. "I talk to family members who have lost loved ones every single day, and it's only about once a year that a family member will say no to an interview. They usually want to talk."

In the weeks following the workshop, students will reach out to the family members who have volunteered to be interviewed. 

Shifting the focus from death to life

In addition to regaling students with stories from the newspaper business, 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,” said Langer.

For Matt Williams (M’20), the workshop was helpful.

“During the workshop, we imagined the life of our donors and wrote about their lives through a series of prompts,” said Williams. “This event helped me to refocus on the most important aspect of medicine: the human one.”

Leigh Ann Sham
GUMC Communications