Brought to you by the students of the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine
I have taken what is called a "non-traditional route" to medical school. In my case, this means that I am quite a bit older than my medical school peers. So I have to think back nearly thirty years to remember my family vacations. Though many of the memories are hazy, I distinctly recall the six of us piling into the car with our family dog and enough camping equipment for a small Army platoon. We would usually head east, and I would sit wedged against the window, just trying my hardest to stay out of trouble. I passed much of the time by counting and critiquing cemeteries. I would rate them based on their maintenance, their fences, the gravestones, and the flowers left on the graves. It sounds like a morbid fascination, but it didn't feel that way. Looking back, I think I was trying to understand something about life by analyzing how we cared for our dead.
That interest didn't fade as time went on. When I was old enough, I took a job at Spring Grove Cemetery and worked there throughout high school and college. As you probably know, Spring Grove Cemetery is a local treasure and a National Historic Landmark. It encompasses almost 750 acres in the heart of Cincinnati and is also a beautiful arboretum. While working there, I learned much about horticulture and gardening, as well as what it felt like to be a productive member of an efficient team. Those skills came in handy in the years that followed (and still do), but what I gained most of all wasn't a tangible skill or something to put on a CV; and it wasn't learned from my boss or coworkers. I learned reverence for the dead, and it was taught to me by those that are interred there. Each morning, I was awed by the serenity of the cemetery and humbled by the memorial to so many lives led.
My peers most likely were not shaped by working in and around graves, yet they exhibit the same reverence and respect for the bodies of the donors that I do. This reverence is encouraged and embodied by a sign that hangs over the door to our anatomy labs. A Latin phrase is displayed on the sign, and when translated to English reads, “this is the place where death rejoices to help the living.” Every time we walk into the labs, we are reminded that the dead have much to teach. I haven't focused much on that thought since my days at Spring Grove Cemetery. In the interim, I have focused on lectures, libraries, and Wikipedia. I have learned of the advancements and discoveries made by individual lives. Your loved ones, though, are the exceptional few that continue to teach and give beyond life. They inspire me to be a better student, a better doctor, and one day, a body donor.
About the Author:
Susan Williams is a second year medical student at UC. This piece is the transcription of a speech she gave at the anual Cadaver Memorial Service held in Kresge Auditorium on October 5, 2013
About the artwork:
"Two Peasant Women Digging in a Snow-Covered Field at Sunset" is an 1890 oil on canvas painting by Vincent Van Gogh.
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