Part of the Dental School’s curriculum includes a complete study of the human anatomy with the use of a cadaver. The school and the state both have strict guidelines and laws regarding the proper use and respect of these donated bodies. While all students experience some reticence in beginning dissection of a human body, some have an easier time acclimating to the situation than others. When the doors of the dissecting table were opened today and the bodies were exposed, several of my classmates were moved to tears at the thought of using the deceased for our study.
For my part, I was not moved to tears at that moment, but instead was thrown into introspection about the body, life, learning, and death.
Above the door to the anatomy labs is a latin phrase—Mortui Vivos Docent—“Let the dead teach the living.” As you enter through that portal, the weightiness of the impending events decent upon you. The thought of cutting into a human body brings shudders to some, nausea to others, and at the very least, resistance. Why do we hesitate? We are scientific people. We know that once the body has died it does not feel the pain of scalpels or feel the embarrassment of nakedness in front of others, but we still find ourselves flinching with the introduction of the knife into the skin, and ashamed at the sight of the uncovered body.
Some of my next thoughts were about the ugliness of death. Some have described the actual “passing” of a person’s spirit as a peaceful release of life, and I certainly hope that it is as they say. But be that as it may, the retreating echos of death’s visit include rigor that contorts and distorts the face into an uncharacteristic mask. The intestines spill the contents of its tract. The body begins to decompose almost immediately without the constant input of nutrients it gets while the person is alive. This macabre scene is enough to make anyone fear death, and on some level I believe we all do, but the horror soon turns into peace when we remember that death is simply an ugly stage in a journey to a better place. It is then, once you have thought of all the horrors of death, that the true emotion of the words from 1 Corinthians take flight: “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” And the words from John Donne’s Death Be Not Proud ring so comforting: Death be not proud, though some have called thee / Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so, / For those whom thou think'st thou dost overthrow, / Die not, poor death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
I have a new respect for these people who donated their bodies to science. I had always considered it a noble action, but now I consider it an action of pure humility and quiet service. These cadavers, our silent teachers, submissively give up their bodies to us so that they might continue to change this world for the better by transforming fumbling hands and unmolded brains into the sharp and quick minds that have the skills to save lives. They lie in their tanks with still hearts, teaching doctors to carefully listen to heartbeats, lest they stop. They lie in their tanks with unseeing eyes, teaching students how to see anomalies in the human form. They lie in their tanks in peace, helping all of us to bring peace and healing to each patient we see.
Mortui Vivos Docent, indeed. We are ready to learn.