The other day, I met my cadaver. I had seen cadavers before and had even held parts of the human body in my hands, but “meeting” mine, which involved turning the body over in a vat of formalin, as to prepare for the dissection of the back, brought the situation to life (no pun intended). Lying in front of me, naked and exposed, was the body of someone who had once been alive. And I was about to cut into this body, using it as a tool to expand my knowledge and understanding of medicine.
While in the anatomy lab, I heard the question, “What should we name our cadaver?” voiced several times by various “tank groups”. I guess naming cadavers is something that medical students do, as earlier in the day, I heard an excerpt from a book written by a doctor who looked back and remembered naming her cadaver “Cherry.” A quick google search on “naming cadavers” brings up discussions by medical students attaching names to cadavers to remind themselves that they are dissecting a human, someone who was once alive. I guess some might need this extra step to “person-ize” their cadaver. Or maybe some need to soften the strangeness of the situation by attaching a name, maybe even something slightly humorous or ironic. However, the idea of naming a cadaver immediately unsettled me and, before lab, I mulled over this idea and wondered whether I would name mine (as I had named the bodies of frogs I dissected in middle school), or whether I would even have a choice in the christening process amongst my tank mates.
But back to my cadaver. Judging by his body, I can tell that he lived a long life. I hope it was one filled with love, happiness, meaning, and minimal suffering. This man lying before me had a family, friends, an occupation, favorite places and things, various likes and dislikes, a life, a name. He was a person. He had created his own life and identity.
Who am I to give him a name?
One could get philosophical here and go into the deeper and perhaps existential questions about mind-body duality, the origins of personhood, what makes us human, the existence of the soul, its origin and location, where the soul goes when the body dies, and the body (is it just a shell?). I won’t go into these questions here, as that conversation would go on for days and I doubt that I would ever arrive at any meaningful conclusions. But, I will ask, is this body lying before me, naked and exposed, still a person? Yes, I believe so. But it is also an important learning tool and I will respect both aspects of this cadaver. I am deeply grateful for this incredible gift.
However, no matter the answers to these questions posed, giving my cadaver a name seems to somehow cheapen the experience.