Bioethics Blogs

Sacred and Profane: Balancing the sanctity of the human body with the mechanics of cadaver dissection

By Michael Dauzvardis

Often heard on the first day of anatomy lab:

“Oh— I’m so glad the cadaver doesn’t look real. It is gray and ashen.  The skin is wrinkled and the head is shaven. I can do this— I’ll make the first cut.”

In fall, in medical schools across the country, students begin their initial rite of passage on their journey to becoming a physician by undertaking the task of cadaver dissection.  It is the job of the anatomy faculty to assist the students in this profane act by teaching them how to use scalpels, long knives, saws, hammers, and chisels in the disassembly of the human body.  At the same time, it is also the job of the anatomy faculty, campus ministry, and other enlightened students to hit the “spiritual reset button” and remind all dissectors not to neglect the “human” in human dissection.  Most medical schools now have an opening (and closing) ceremony focusing on the sacredness of the human body and the unselfish gift and generosity of the donors…

During lab, if I notice students, other faculty, or even myself getting a little too blasé with the removal of an organ or disarticulation of an extremity, I begin to engage in a little exercise I call “PERHAPS”…

Perhaps this 92 year old cadaver was named Frank.

Perhaps Frank was an only child and his parents cried when he was born.

Perhaps Frank played baseball in an empty sandlot in Chicago and broke both a window and a bone in his right foot.

Perhaps Frank worked evenings and weekends in his grandfather’s bakery during high school.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.