New York State Funeral Directors Association

Albany Medical College Anatomical Donors Memorial

Family members, friends and medical students gathered for a memorial service and interment in August of 2014, an event that shows people who sacrifice their remains for the benefit of humanity are laid to rest with dignity and appreciation.

The solemn ceremony is held each year to honor donors to Albany Medical College’s Anatomical Gift Program -- and to thank family and friends who forestalled funerals and burial in deference to their loved-ones' decision.

“There is no greater privilege that can be given to a future physician, medical educator or health professional than to have the opportunity to study closely the anatomy of another human being,” said Dr. Leon J. Martino, director of the program at the college near the New York State Capitol.

It’s a gesture with implications both for the deceased and their survivors -- one medical students pledged they’d never forget.

Young aspiring doctors gathered by the dozen to thank to the donors and their friends and family for whom the sense of finality that follow a memorial service was put off.

Martino said he hopes the ceremony offers closure for them.

In most cases, donors are picked up within 24 hours after death, and family members will wait a year or more to see them again for a formal goodbye.

Students were given the names of these donors and they were encouraged to do some research and learn about their lives.

“They were our first patients,” student Adam Parker said. “Having just completed our first year of medical education, we owe your loved-ones a far greater debt of gratitude than simply gathering here and thanking you.”

“The debt that we owe them is so enormous that it can never fully be repaid. But we would like you to know that we will never stop trying,” he said.

Strain of Death

Death, he said, places an enormous strain on those who survive. Choosing to donate one’s body adds another layer to that strain.Medical students honoring donors

“It could not have been an easy decision for them to make their donation knowing the toll that it would exact on all of their family and friends.

But they did so knowing that their gift would be followed by generation upon generation of benefits to the students of Albany Medical College and the field of medicine in general,” Parker said.

The benefit to mankind is clear, Parker said: People today are living a generation longer than people did 100 years ago.

Student Steve Lange said the donors’ gift “has forever impacted our approach to the study and practice of medicine and the care and treatment of our future patients.”

“The magnanimity of your loved-ones is eternally appreciated,” Lange said.

Tracing its roots back to 1839, Albany Medical College represents an integral part of Albany Medical Center Hospital - itself dating to 1849.

Today, Albany Medical Center Hospital serves as a regional healthcare destination hosting 734 beds and a large emergency care center.

White Casket

A podium was set up deep in the Victorian-era cemetery embraced by hundreds of towering markers and ornate memorials.

The 467-acre Albany Rural Cemetery, dating back to 1841, is a National Historic Landmark considered a "mirror of New York's past."

There, many anatomical donors are buried to rest in peace in the same ground as former U.S. President Chester A. Arthur, more than 30 members of Congress, five former governors of New York State and 55 of the city of Albany's late mayors.

A casket colored pure white and accented with silver glowed in the sunshine near the podium where students took turns reading aloud all the donors' names.

The group, representing the college’s entire Class of 2017, encircled the late-summer gathering in a single-file.

One by one, they placed a flower on the casket that held the cremated remains of 27 donors.

Duncan Byers said his wife of 30 years, Deborah Chess, decided to donate her body some 25 years before she died – and it was for “practical” reasons, he said.

Chess sought to avert any hassles family members might face upon her death so she could make her departure easier on loved-ones.

“She knew it would simplify everything. And it did,” Byers said.

Chess died at age 74, about 1.5 years before the interment ceremony.

They’d raised two daughters and of their six grandchildren, the oldest is entering college, he said proudly.

Chess’ friends, family and co-workers held a memorial service for Chess not long after her death, and roughly 100 people attended, he said.

That service served as a more-personal remembrance, he said.

Albany-area funeral director Stephen Hans, a member of the New York State Funeral Directors Association, has been serving the Albany Medical College program for about 20 years.

There are actually two services each year, Hans said.

One in the Albany Rural Cemetery and then, afterwards, a second for donors of the Catholic Faith who are laid to rest at the adjacent St. Agnes Catholic Cemetery, a 165-acre burial ground that dates back 147 years.

Urns are buried there individually. This year, there were 18 in all, Hans said.

Cremated remains of other donors were being gathered by family members planning a final disposition elsewhere, such as in a family plot at a cemetery, Hans said.

The turnout to this annual function demonstrates the important role funeral and memorial services play in the lives of the deceased's friends and family, he said.

"Some of them passed away probably one or two or, in a few cases, more than two years ago," Hans said.

"Even after all this time, we still get all these family members who come."

Their pain, he said, remains evident despite that passage of time.

"Some of them, they get upset. It's a very emotional time for them," said Hans, who believes anatomical donors are properly cared for.

"I think the medical college takes great care, even in their instruction to students. They're treated with a great deal of dignity."

EdsPhotoEd Munger
Communications & Social Media Specialist
NYS Funeral Directors Association


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