On Campus


A Most Generous Gift

Anatomical Gift Program honors those who gave their bodies so others might learn

memorial service organized by UB’s Anatomical Gift Program

Photo: Sandra Kicman

By Ann Whitcher Gentzke

As hundreds of butterflies flew upward, 4-year-old Ian Kiefer of Hanover, N.H., looked up to the sky and called out to his grandmother, Beverly. “Good-bye, Grandma,” he said in a soft, clear voice, as his family—parents Ernest and Diana Kiefer and little brother, Evan, 2—stood nearby.

The Kiefers were among more than 500 attendees at a June 19 memorial service organized by UB’s Anatomical Gift Program to honor those who had donated their bodies to the medical school over the past couple of years. The university hires two licensed funeral directors to cremate each body once it has fulfilled its purpose for medical education and research. Then, every two years, a memorial service is held in Skinnersville Cemetery in Amherst, where donor remains are interred in a communal grave. (Families also have the option of having a loved one’s ashes returned for private internment.) At the ceremony this past June, after two students expressed their gratitude to the 165 donors, the audience moved from a large tent to a graveside service, where the monarch butterflies were released—mostly from the hands of children.

Families release monarch butterflies to honor loved ones.

Families release monarch butterflies to
honor loved ones.

The Anatomical Gift Program, founded some 50 years ago by the late Harold Brody, chair of anatomy and a SUNY Distinguished Teaching Professor Emeritus, accepts whole body donations from thousands of people from all walks of life. Current director Ray Dannenhoffer (PhD ’87, MA ’82, BA ’79) says the program receives about 500 bodies a year; at this writing, 15,512 Western New Yorkers have signed up to make this gift when the time comes. Unlike some medical schools with anatomical gift programs, UB accepts all bodies donated, whatever their size or condition. The sole stipulations are that the donor be at least 18 when enrolling and that he or she cannot have donated individual organs, other than eyes. There’s no cost to the donor’s family, provided the body is located within 100 miles of campus.

At UB, all first-year medical and dental students are rigorously briefed on the importance of treating donors’ remains respectfully, as are undergraduates in physical therapy, occupational therapy and exercise science who take anatomy courses in the summer. Giving voice to this sensitivity during the June memorial, second-year medical student Nikki Dodge described how her initial belief in dispassionate observation of the cadavers gave way to an emotional connection with one particular donor as she was studying her hand.

Families release monarch butterflies to honor loved ones.

After noticing that the woman’s nails were painted a bright metallic silver, Dodge began to wonder about the story behind this quirky shade. “I imagined a little girl, maybe a granddaughter, choosing the coolest, prettiest color she could find, and painting her grandmother’s nails,” Dodge said, her voice breaking. “Or maybe she liked painting her own nails with funky colors, like my own grandma. In my mind, I understood what an incredible gift your loved ones made and, in that moment, my heart did as well.”