Life amid death: the blessing of cadavers at a Catholic medical school

Life amid death: the blessing of cadavers at a Catholic medical school August 30, 2011

A remarkable glimpse into a world few of us see, courtesy the Chicago Tribune:

Every year, first-year medical students grapple with gross anatomy, approaching their first human dissection with a mixture of anticipation, anxiety or sheer dread.

On Monday, 150 students at Loyola University Chicago‘s Stritch School of Medicine approached their task with reverence, reciting prayers and bowing their heads as a Roman Catholic priest offered a blessing over the 18 shrouded cadavers — silent teachers who would guide the aspiring physicians’ careers.

“The cadaver keeps speaking to you even in death,” said Michael Dauzvardis, director of the anatomy course. “You’ve got to listen to it. There are volumes of knowledge you can still learn from that person who made that ultimate gift.”

During the ceremony, Salvation Army Maj. Debbie Sjogren, of Lombard, stepped up and addressed the students. Her late husband, Salvation Army Maj. Randall Sjogren, was likely under one of those sheets, she said, because he wanted to be one of the next generation’s first patients.

“My husband’s prayer was: ‘I’ve always wanted my life to bring glory to God. Now I want my death to,'” Debbie Sjogren recounted. “He prayed for every medical student that learns from his body and every patient of theirs that heals from the knowledge they receive.”

Read it all. It’s worth it.

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9 responses to “Life amid death: the blessing of cadavers at a Catholic medical school”

  1. This story moves me in a very special way but the reason goes back to Vatican II.

    During the second session, Pope Paul VI expanded the “Observers” and for that and all the later sessions included not only non-Catholic religious representatives but also a few Roman Catholic women — including Mother Mary Luke Tobin, a major leader among American women religious at that time and the Mother-General of the Sisters of Loretto based at Nerinks, Kentucky.

    Her impact upon Vatican II was rather quiet — and not that widely known — but very profound. In any of the church history classes that I teach — especially about Vatican II — I always remember her to my students.

    After Vatican II, when her congregation moved to a different and more modern organizational structure, she rotated out as the major superior and readily accepted the common title of “Sister Mary Luke.”

    When she died (well over the age of 90), she had already arranged through her community to donate her body to science. After her final “teaching moment,” her remains were cremated and they have an honored place in the graveyard at that Motherhouse.

    I made a pilgrimage there in November 2009.

  2. That’s touching, it’s nice that they do that. It would be comforting to the families of the dead people to know that this blessing was being said. It’s a sacrifice for them when their loved ones’ bodies are willed to science, because they don’t have the immediate closure of the graveside prayers and burial. Though I believe when the school is finished with the cadavers, they are cremated and the ashes given to the families; so eventually they could have a grave or a niche in a mausoleum to remember the departed.

  3. My father was a medical doctor. When I was about 7 years old he took me to the hospital he was working (a university teaching hospital). He told me to say put in a chair while he went somewhere. Of course I didn’t listen and wondered off, saw a big double door with a sign on top. I did not understand what the sign said at the time (it said amphitheater a term used for dissecting rooms). Well, being curious I opened the door and inside saw these huge slab type tables. At the beginning my seven year old brain did not compute, all I saw was piles on top of the big tables. Then the brain started to make sense, and there were body parts; legs, arms, torsos, etc. They were covered in a transparent blue plastic. Then I felt someone pull me out of the room by my arm. It was my dad; “told you to stay put!”. I’ve seen cadavers after that but that sticks in my mind. I am sorry, am probably tremendously selfish, but I don’t want my parts to end up like that. I pray that I will be granted burial just as I leave this carcass behind.

  4. Deacon Norb:

    I, too, always include Sr. Mary Luke Tobin in any presentations or classes I have given on Vatican II. (Off topic: My uncle who was ordained bishop (consecrated they called it then) in 1962 attended all the sessions, even gave two interventions. I include him, as well.)

    Here is an anecdote about her that might be relevant for the Deacon’s Bench. Speaking to reporters after sitting in on her first council meeting Oct. 1, 1964, she expressed hopes that Vatican II would lead to far greater inclusion of women in church leadership. “I hope some real progress will be made in acknowledging the great potential that remains to be tapped. For instance, the diaconate, now to be reinstated as a sacramental order even for married men, might well be a calling for women, too.”

  5. Thank you for posting this story, Deacon Greg. Until my sister went to medical school, I never knew that these schools do conduct services before anatomy classes begin. The students are made aware: These are not just bodies, these are people who had lives and loved ones. You must respect them.

    At my sister’s school, they read many letters from families who said “We did not want to do this. We do not want our loved ones’ bodies taken apart this way and treated this way. But they wanted this so we are honoring their wishes. Please, know this was a person who we loved very much and treat them with respect and dignity.”

  6. As a student of science, the cadaver lab always was a weight on my soul. Had i had the privilege of attending a Catholic university the blessing and prayers for those souls would have brought me much peace. There was disrespect in the secular institution by the students even though it was prohibited by the administration. I’m sure the disrespect was an expression of fear. This article has brought me peace and i will remember to pray for the repose of the souls who allowed me to see the complexity of creation.

  7. What a beautiful gift to give! I would recommend however, that anyone who is planning on giving their bodies to science to look into the organization they are planning on working with before they sign up. I have done a number of presentations at school about this issue and I’ve heard all sorts of horror stories. Some websites to look at include: or

    You can also look up specific schools (including Catholic ones): or look up your specific local school.

  8. 30 years ago, my tank mates and I named our tiny hispanic female cadavar, Maria Rosa. We were with her for six months and she even made the acrid formalin smell like corn tortillas! She was and remains to this day my most profound teacher. As a Roman Catholic physician, I find myself giving prayers of thanksgiving often through the years for this nameless woman known to the four of us as Maria Rosa. In Christ – Laura

  9. Even secular medical schools usually try to treat cadavers with respect and love. Wright State University, for example, has a small memorial plaque area, which includes a small graveyard for those people whose kin do not choose to bury their remains elsewhere. It’s a very peaceful place back in an unfrequented area of the university woods that is still easy for kin to visit; and I believe it may even include some consecrated ground, though don’t quote me on that.

    Obviously medical students are notorious for their black sense of humor; but that’s how many people deal with death. It doesn’t necessarily entail disrespect. (Go to a wake in many an Irish-American family with a black sense of humor, and hooboy, the jokes.)

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