By Harriet P. Gross
I’ve learned from a Canadian friend that her recently deceased mother willed her body to science. Not something that sits well with our Jewish community, but we’d all be wise to consider the elements in her decision.
My friend Peggy and her husband live on Isle Madame in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, in a home on one shore of Arichat Harbour, where people can kayak with pilot whales. Peggy’s parents were Californians, but when her father died, her mother accepted the daughterly invitation to become a Maritimes resident herself.
Mary made a big, warm life in this cold little place. She was already almost 80, but continued with her lifelong focus, music. A retired teacher trained in classical piano, she located a group of retired musicians to play with, and led a 125-member choral group. She took courses at nearby Université Sainte-Anne, studying art history, modern poetry and sculpture; she also studied French, learning a new language in order to become a true part of this old Acadian community.
Mary was a Catholic, and performed benefit recitals for her own church, Our Lady of Assumption; she also played the piano monthly for services at St. John’s Anglican. Always one to help others, her classical programs were highlights of life for elderly shut-ins at the local nursing home. Mary was also a personal inspiration to its residents since she herself had a pacemaker, was tethered to a portable oxygen tank because of emphysema and needed a cane for walking. And she played on, willingly and still beautifully, everywhere, despite the fact that her hands were becoming gnarled by arthritis.
Peggy writes that her mother died, just three weeks shy of her 87th birthday, due to complications of pneumonia. She passed away at home, in her own apartment within the house of her daughter and son-in-law. Her mind was bell-clear to the end, and she made it very clear in advance that she wanted to leave her body to medical science.
“I didn’t like it,” Peggy says. “I asked her, ‘Where will I go to visit you?’” And Mary said, “If you think that when I’ve left my body, I’ll just be lying under a rock somewhere, you’re very mistaken.” Peggy kept “forgetting” to pick up the necessary donation forms, hoping her mother would forget. Then one day, Mary just walked to her doctor’s office and got them herself. So what could her daughter do?
“But I couldn’t bear the thought that my dear mother had become just an anonymous cadaver,” Peggy told me, “so after she died, I wrote a brief account of Mother’s life and character, and pinned it to her clothing before her body was taken away. Then I had second thoughts about that, and called the Dalhousie Medical School, because I was afraid my note was inappropriate.
“But it turned out that they like to know about their donors. And they treat the bodies with incredible respect and gratitude. They say a prayer for the person before they begin to use the body. Unless families have other plans, they bury the final ashes in a garden at the medical school, and every year they invite the families to a special memorial service for their donors.
“And the reason they’re so grateful is that this is a big deal,” Peggy concludes. “They really need bodies for teaching and research, but usually they only get about 20 a year. So now, I’ve completely changed my mind about this. I think it’s a fine thing to do.”
And so does the writer who read Peggy’s mom’s obituary and contributed an op-ed piece about her to the Halifax Chronicle-Herald, the largest daily paper in eastern Canada. The story of Mary’s life and her final decision was picked up by CBC Radio (Canada’s NPR), which has aired it several times as “The Silent Teacher.”
“It has done wonders for body donations,” Peggy reports with pride. “The school says unheard-of numbers of donors are now signing up all across Canada. This was too rare before. Mother would be so pleased!”
Peggy’s fantasy: “Mom, now free of pain and able to breathe effortlessly, has found Dad, and they’re having a grand old time together. They heard the CBC radio program up there in heaven, and after listening, they happily high-fived each other.”
The newspaper column ends: “Not many can endow a medical school chair or fund a scholarship, but anyone can contribute an abandoned body. Mary did. I can. You can. Why not?”
Something to think about, indeed!
By Harriet P. Gross