Celebrating the Life of Cadavers 

By: Ashley Grasinger & Shania Lipinski 

(SETON HILL, Pa.)- “It has really given me a new perspective on medicine because we would never have been able to learn as much as we did without their sacrifice and generosity,” said Maura Brereton, a physician assistant student at Seton Hill University. 

“We do two semesters of human dissection with the graduate physician assistant program,” said Bobbie Leeper, biology and physician assistant program’s coordinator and SHU professor. “The PA program is a January start, so part one is in the spring and part two is in the fall. November and December we are wrapping up our dissections.”

On Nov. 17 the PA program will be hosting a ceremony that celebrates the life of the cadavers used in their class dissections. This ceremony is called the Ceremony of Gratitude. 

“The ceremony is a way to have an end to that class and provides a way for the students to say thank you and goodbye to their donors because after two full semesters of discretion with one donor, you get a really strong connection to that individual,” Leeper said. 

There have been five cadavers donated to the PA program this year.\

“I say donor instead of cadaver and work with students on that as well. Mainly because cadaver, I think, is more disconnected,” said Leeper. “You think more of an object or something to dissect, whereas donor has the connection to the verb donation, which keeps the human aspect of the person. They are all people that donated their body after their death.”

“Working with the cadavers has been very meaningful,” said Brereton. “It has helped a lot from an academic side, learning the human body and its anatomy. In terms of the other side of it, looking at the cadavers, this is a person that had a beautiful life and experiences. It is humbling they donated their body for that, and I think our class as a whole really worked to be as respectful as possible.”

“It is important that we are treating the donors with the utmost respect and professionalism. I think it is very Setonian to do that,” said Leeper. “In order to get to the ceremony, I do have a few things. Firstly, I make it a students-oriented event.”

Leeper organized a group of seven PA students, including Brereton, to organize the ceremony. The other students include Morgan Ryan, Cierra Cautela, Jessica Darkowski, Kayla Maga, Kyle Pfabe, and Samantha Woolcock. 

“They help to facilitate the organization and designing of the ceremony,” said Leeper. “Every year we have the same basic components, such as the giving of the rose ceremony, and every year each class puts their own spin on it.”

“We are putting our own little twist on it,” said Kayla Maga. “We also always wanna tell people that when they come it is an interfaith ceremony and they do not have to be Catholic to attend.”

“This is an interfaith ceremony because we do not wanna make it a Catholic service,” said Leeper. “That would be limiting and exclusionary to the students. Not all the students are Catholic. Also, we don’t know the religion of the donors.” 

“We don’t know what their religious persuasions were if any,” said Sr. Maureen O’Brien. “Our students are also of different faiths. To me, it just seems appropriate considering the donors and all of the students that it be interfaith.”

Sr. Maureen O’Brien, or Sister Moe, has been working on this ceremony “since the beginning.” When asked how many years it has been she said, “that is what I was afraid you were gonna ask.” 

This ceremony has been happening since the beginning of the lab, in 2016.

“They have had prayers and readings from all faith religions. They weren’t any one religion,” said O’Brien. “For me, this is one of the most profound experiences we have throughout the year. It just is really profound experience of gratitude. If someone close to me had donated their body for scientific research, I would be so moved to see the gratitude of the students who have been in the class.”

The cadavers are received from West Virginia University Medical School. 

“Some of these people filled out the paperwork to donate their bodies 20-30 years ago,” said Leeper. “It is pretty amazing.” 

“It is totally an act of giving,” said O’Brien. “In their death, they were teachers.”

“Every year [the WVU] Medical School puts on an additional remembrance ceremony,” said Leeper. “At that ceremony, the families of all the donors are invited to go. They read out the full names of all donors. It is more of a memorial service. At Seton Hill, our service is student based.” 

The same group of students work with the same cadaver throughout the lab. 

“A week or two before the ceremony we work with the graduate art therapy program,” said Leeper. “They do an art expression workshop with us. That helps the students again say thank you and goodbye. We have very science-oriented students so it gives them an outlet for their emotions through writing or artwork, which every year we incorporate into the ceremony.” 

“This year we have a lot of our PA students doing music and readings, things like that,” Maga said.

Dana Elmendorf, who is the program director of the graduate art therapy program, says that it is the seventh year that they have worked with the PA program for the Ceremony of Gratitude. “The art therapy students are so appreciative of what they learned from the PA students. We are providing a workshop to serve the PA program, but we learned so much from it as well and we are so appreciative to now be in our seventh year working with them and to have this mutual learning happening.” 

The workshop that was held by the art therapy students allowed for the PA students to process their emotions and appreciate the gift that the PA students’ donors have given to them, all while allowing them to explore their creativity.

“I think we are really excited to get away from the science a little bit and do something that isn’t medicine,” said Morgan Ryan. 

“It allows for all the students to be a part of the ceremony,” said Leeper. “As physician assistants, they will have to deal with difficult situations and it is important for them to learn how to deal with heavy emotions.” 

“There’s also a bigger focus as well that fits with the mission of Seton Hill, which is to train students and to see the beauty in the world and human beings around them,” said Elmendorf.

The ceremony was held at 4:30 p.m. in St. Joseph Chapel. 

“Even though it is interfaith, we hold it in the chapel mainly because it is a beautiful space and it is a nice atmosphere for a very respectful service,” said Leeper. “At the end, we send the donors back to WVU for cremation.”

“Following the ceremony, they gather and they present from their research what they think the person died from,” said O’Brien. “At the end of that report, we have a blessing ceremony. The students gather around the cadaver, now in a body bag, and we have a ceremony of sending. Each student blesses the body with holy water. You have this ceremony of gratitude and then following that they send them back. In that lab, it is just them and the donors and it is kinda like the final goodbye.” 


Photo provided by Bobbie Leeper from the day of the ceremony