JS sent me an article from The Wall Street Journal about how medical students in Taiwan deal with the cadavers they learn from in anatomy lab. Before school begins, the students visit the families of the donors and learn about their lives. The donated bodies are treated with such reverence, the students have an elaborate farewell ceremony where they honor their donors and even write biographies and light incense in their honor. Some donor families attend the farewell ceremonies and tears are shed by all as poems are read and photos shown. After the dissection, the med students carry the donors' coffins to the crematory and mourn as a group.
This effort to foster compassion in young physicians also creates more donors, as the Chinese culture does not believe in damaging bodies before burial. Bodies are viewed as a bequeathal from their ancestors. The bodies are elaborately sewn up after the dissection labs so they are intact and donor families know that their relative will be treated with respect.
Cadaver lab is a rite of passage for all doctors in training and it is an experience every doctor remembers from early medical school.
We were in groups of 4 (two on each side) for my gross anatomy training and I can remember every aspect of that semester...the lab, the lighting, the plastic sheeting, the lessons each day, the smell of formaldehyde, the way the anatomy book got soiled and tattered, the feel of the skin and organs, and most of all the reverence for the body.
Although we had no rituals (except we did give our donated body a name - "Ben") there was an air of respect and quiet in the cadaver lab. I often worked alone late into the evening and it was a surreal experience.
I like the idea of having a formal ritual. We never knew names or histories of our cadavers so visiting with families was not an option, but we did feel gratitude to those who contributed so much, after death, to our education.