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First-Year Medical Students Honor Body Donors with Interfaith Service

by Maggie Rotermund on 11/08/2019
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Medical students at Saint Louis University honored those who donated their bodies for medical education with an interfaith memorial service Friday.

gift body ceremony

Students greet friends and relatives of those who have donated their bodies to Saint Louis University School of Medicine as they enter St. Francis Xavier College Church for the annual gift body memorial service. Photo by Carrie Bebermeyer. 

The service is put together by first-year medical students, led by John Martin, Ph.D., director of the Center for Anatomical Science and Education (CASE), and MariaTeresa Tersigni-Tarrant, Ph.D., D-ABFA, associate professor in anatomy.

"As medical students, our Gift Body donors serve as our greatest teachers, shaping our foundation in medicine as well as demonstrating the qualities of selflessness, compassion and generosity of spirit which we strive to embody as future physicians," said Erika Schmidt, first year medical student.  "It was truly an honor to gather with the loved ones of these incredible individuals today and share in a ceremony of remembrance for those who have given us so much."

Student musicians chose the music and performed each piece. Student artists submitted artwork for the service's bulletin and the M1s chose the flower that they used in the flower procession. 

The M1s, Graduate Students, and Allied Health Students served as ushers and greeters and they will also take part in the flower procession.

In addition to reading prayers, the students also performed music, created the artwork and gave personal reflections. 

"The ceremony was the chance to understand the impact that donors have on us as students and on their families," said Joseph Rojo, first year medical student.  "It was a beautiful moment to be able to honor our donors and to be part of the closure process for so many people.

"By taking part of this ceremony, I have been humbled to understand how our ability to be present to the needs of others, in our case being present to the needs of remembrance, has a tremendous impact on those around us."

First year medical student Tara Tabibi also expressed her gratitude toward donors and their families. 

"I think that because the only tangible part of ourselves we leave behind is our body, donating it is not only hugely generous on the part of the donor but also on the part of the donor’s loved ones who have to cope with giving that up," Tabibi said. "I’m honestly extremely grateful to these individuals and their families and for their kindness and their contribution to my medical education."

Michael Gavrilovic, first year medical student, echoed those sentiments.

"The ceremony to me is a way we can show our gratitude as students towards the families of those who donated their bodies for the purpose of furthering our education," Gavrilovic said.  "It gives us insight into the lives these people lived through allowing us to interact with their family members, and I like to think it gives the family members some closure as well."

The service, held at St. Francis Xavier College Church, honors all the faith traditions represented in the medical school class. This years’ service included Catholic, Jewish, Christian, Hindu and Muslim prayers.

Each year, people donate their bodies to SLU School of Medicine's Gift Body Program through the Center for Anatomical Science and Education to educate medical students, allied health students and residents. In the past year, 441 people donated their bodies to SLU.

"It is so easy to get caught up in the workload of gross anatomy and lose sight of the fact that our ability to study and learn the human body in its purest form is not a right, but a privilege to be cherished -- a privilege which was only bestowed upon us because others have given the most cherished part of themselves," said Mackenzie Poole, first year medical student. "Today's service was a reminder that what we do in lab is about so much more than a grade on a practical exam. It is about using our time in the course to honor the lives of those who have donated the ultimate gift such that we may be able to give the gift of healing to our patients in the future." 

Twice a year, ashes are buried at Sts. Peter and Paul Cemetery, 7030 Gravois Ave. A graveside service is conducted by the medical school campus minister and attended by CASE faculty and staff. There is one common grave marker at the site with the following inscription: “Saint Louis University and its students gratefully acknowledge the charity of those buried here who gave their remains for the advancement of medical science.”

Those interested in learning more about the gift body program can call 314-977-8027.


Established in 1836, Saint Louis University School of Medicine has the distinction of awarding the first medical degree west of the Mississippi River. The school educates physicians and biomedical scientists, conducts medical research, and provides health care on a local, national and international level. Research at the school seeks new cures and treatments in five key areas: infectious disease, liver disease, cancer, heart/lung disease, and aging and brain disorders.