As they begin to study medicine, students who aspire to be physicians or physician associates meet their first “patients” in the anatomy lab. “These patients had a wish,” said Lawrence Rizzolo, Ph.D., professor of anatomy, “that a hard-working, dedicated student would take their remains and use them to advantage.” The students know little about these patients at first—no more than their age, sex and race. Over the course of six months, however, the students become intimately familiar with them as they chart the geography of the human body. They learn from the calluses on their hands, the scars from prior surgeries, tattoos on their skin and the signs of disease and repair they may find inside.

On Feb. 28, students and faculty held a Service of Gratitude in the Historical Library to thank the donors for their gift to science. During most of the 15 years students have organized the service, it was styled, in the words of anatomy professor William Stewart, Ph.D., on a Quaker meeting. People gathered and offered their thoughts on their first patients. About five years ago students decided to present a more formal program, Stewart said. The 75-minute ceremony this winter included songs and poems as well as remarks by students. Medical student Kavita Mariwalla tried to imagine her patient’s personal life in two poems she wrote. “When I examine your heart as a structure,” she said, “I will remember that you kept secrets in it.”

The service, Rizzolo said, allows students to express the frustrations, angst and other emotions that come with the experience of exploring a cadaver. “It is really their first experience with a patient, even though the patient is dead,” he said. “It raises a lot of thoughts about their own mortality and their lives as clinicians.”

Each year, when the anatomy class ends, the bodies are cremated. About every five years, when ashes have accumulated, they are interred in a common grave at Evergreen Cemetery in New Haven. This year, medical students plan to inscribe headstones for each of the five common graves that hold the remains of the bodies.