The Ultimate Gift
Dr. Alan Seyfer claimed his most valued instrument as a surgeon during his more than 40 years of practice has been, on many occasions, his in-depth knowledge of human anatomy.
Seyfer, chair of the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene State Anatomy Board, speaking to a crowd of approximately 250 at the Maryland Anatomical Donors memorial service June 16, said that because of that understanding he has been able “to help my patients to counter the ravages of tumors, to repair birth defects or to repair structures that had been injured in accidents during wartime service — so that my patients might have the possibility of returning to good health.”
As a course director at the Uniformed Services University of Health Sciences, he acknowledged the importance of access to human anatomy study and gratitude to those donating their bodies to scientific research. Seyfer said to the crowd, which included about 50 medical students, “These unselfish men and women and their families have given a new generation of physicians the knowledge that they need to help people across the globe and for decades to come.”
Lyn Book Star and her brother, Dr. Jonathan Book, have been attending the annual memorial service, held at the DHMH Springfield Hospital Center grounds, for more than 30 years. Their parents, Joseph and Lois Book, once active members of Baltimore Hebrew Congregation, donated their bodies to medical research; their father did so in 1976, only a decade or so after anatomy donation became an option upon death, and their mother followed suit when she died in 2004.
“My father died at home and representatives from the anatomy board showed up,” recalled Star. “They were very respectful, they showed up with a hearse, and we just thought OK, he’s gone.” They have learned since then, from the experience with their mother, that the Maryland anatomy board clearly communicates all procedures surrounding the death of an anatomical donor, including the choice of what can be done with remains after study is completed.
The family had a memorial ceremony, but they just assumed that due to the circumstances of anatomical donation, the location of their father’s remains would forever be unknown.
“So for several years we went without knowing what had become of my father’s remains,” said Book. But that changed after Book graduated medical school and began his practice.
Book became a psychiatrist at Springfield Hospital, eventually becoming its clinical director and then superintendent. When leaving the offices and crossing the grounds one day, he noticed a large monument on which was written, “This monument has been placed with deep appreciation for those who gave unselfishly of themselves to advance medical education and research.” He looked into it and discovered it was the anatomy board’s dedication and burial site and then confirmed that his father’s remains had been buried there in 1976.
“From the time we knew that our father’s remains were here, it was very meaningful,” said Book. “It’s interesting the difference between not knowing where the remains are – even though we planted a memorial tree on the Baltimore Hebrew grounds. Still, knowing that his and her remains are really here, it feels different, it feels stronger, and there is a deeper connection.”
It was Rabbi Ruth Smith’s first time officiating at the anatomical donor memorial, at which she was joined by clergy from other faiths as well. Smith, a Reconstructionist rabbi and chaplain at University of Maryland Medical Center for eight years, explained the Jewish concept of honoring the dead to the assembly. She said that what Jews do to honor and respect the dead is a way to show love for them, since the deceased can never reciprocate.
“Today it’s the other way around,” she said to the assembly. “These people have made a gift that is so immense there is no way for us to thank them — and we are all beneficiaries of these gifts. So today we come
together to observe kvod hamet, to honor the dead. We honor them and come to them with the grateful
appreciation for the gift which they have so unselfishly given.”
The concepts of saving a life, known in Hebrew as pikuach nefesh, and showing respect to a deceased’s remains, Smith explained after the ceremony, are two important and weighty directives of Jewish law that intersect when considering donating one’s body to scientific research or even organ donation. She admitted that the two concepts come crashing together for some people.
“It is these questions that are at the forefront of what chaplains deal with,” she said. “I really believe in
respecting Halacha. I don’t always follow it, but I always want to show people that it’s a good idea, I
always like to show how it’s beneficial,” when helping someone talk through the decision of becoming an anatomical donor.
Ronn Wade, director of the state anatomy board, said that between 75,000 and 80,000 people in Maryland have already committed their bodies to medical study upon death.
Wade explained that the normal process for safe disposition of an anatomical donor is to cremate the body and return the ashes to the family if requested, or bury the ashes. “If (the family) wants to do something different that’s possible,” he said.
The minimum cost for the state of Maryland to provide the service is about $695, he estimated, and an
average funeral home could charge from $1,300 up to about $3,000 for cremation services.
Wade said his duty and obligation is to advance public interest, public health and welfare. So when a donor dies, Wade’s first concern is the family.
“So if they say, ‘But Aunt Nelly is not going to like it if Uncle Joe doesn’t have a funeral, and we want him buried instead of cremated,’ fine. It’s not mutually exclusive,” explained Wade. The family can call a funeral director and prepare the body so that it can still be used for research and bury it afterwards.
The ability to be buried instead of cremated, according to Smith, may be what is needed to address and satisfy some of the Jewish legal concerns for many considering becoming an anatomical donor.
Sisters Brenda Katz and Terry Harmon attended the ceremony in memory of their late brother, Donald Michael Jones, who recently died at age 52 of a brain tumor. He donated his body to Springfield Hospital medical research.
“I actually have a brain tumor,” said Katz, “and knowing the value of what [medical students] learn by having access to these donated bodies, it’s very precious.”