Gifts of Knowledge
Meditations on what comes next
by Sarah Royalty Pinkelman
From the January, 2020 issue
"I didn't know Michigan had a football team," I told my boyfriend when I first moved to Ann Arbor. It was new-person swagger and a little bit of truth. Coming from the land of dawgs and gators, I needed to assert that my life once had a different center. Animals and territory: humans are not immune from complicated relationships with place.
Twenty years later, these allegiances are more on a teeter-totter balance than I like to admit. As I move closer to the other side of life, I wonder not just about where I want to live, but where I want to die. Will some instinct push me to return to Georgia pines as I age? Or will I be held by a generous weave of local friends?
Ann Arbor, after all, is a city of transplants: fewer than half of those who reside here were born in Michigan. The rest of us come from different parts, with nearly one in five of us starting our lives as citizens of another country. Compare this to Lansing, where nearly three-quarters of the population was born in Michigan and only one in twelve began life in another country. If our origin stories are geographically diverse, do our final resting places follow a similar pattern?
I brought this obsession of mine to one of my Ann Arbor friends. She's thoughtful and deliberate--the kind of person who brings a luxurious chocolate bar to dinner parties for the hostess to hide away for later. This particular evening, she met my odd dinner topic with a story.
One of her other thoughtful conversations had led to a discovery of a secret garden; at least that's how it sank in my mind and made its home. As a volunteer in a medical setting, she'd spoken with a man who was dying.
He had no family to place him somewhere after he died, or visit his grave for that matter. But he had discovered, through
a long, tangled trail, the U-M's anatomical donation program. Leaving his body for use in education and research offered him a final resting place with intentionality. In the program, after the body has fulfilled its mission and is cremated, unless a family takes the remains for private burial, the ashes are interred and marked with a plaque at a local cemetery along with other donors.
"I'll have a place I belong after I die," he told my friend with a note of relief in his voice, like someone had carried away a burden. My friend told this story with such wonder, I couldn't help but feel some of this man's relief myself.
We hear more about organ donation, no doubt because it offers such an immediate sense of lifesaving action. I think our societal discussions reflect that we're more comfortable with that process; donating one's body for educational purposes is less talked about, yet occurs more frequently: according to the federal Health Resources and Services Administration, in 2018 organs were harvested from almost 11,000 people after death. No federal agency is charged with keeping track of whole-body donations, but researchers estimate that currently there are about 20,000 per year. The numbers are a bit complicated though; some research groups allow for both whole body and organ donation when possible.
The appeal for whole-body donation is also complicated. For this donor, anatomical donation spoke to his need to belong somewhere--to be honored and marked at his death in the way a family traditionally might. Many make the choice for financial reasons--depending on the program, cremation and memorial costs are absorbed by the research group. Donors who've suffered disease may hope their body could pave the way to a discovery that rescues others from the same road. It provides a "reason," a point to all the madness, something good to come out of the trauma.
As I looked into the program at the U-M Medical School, I discovered that their "Gift of Knowledge Program" has an annual memorial service at Rackham to honor donors. In addition to family and friends it is open to the public and usually has about 1,000 attendees. Med students attend in their white coats and bring flowers to honor those that helped them learn first-hand the structure of a hand, or the ways a stroke can impact brain cells. Finally, the cremated remains of donors that are not returned to family for private burial are given rest at Washtenong Memorial Park, a cemetery off Whitmore Lake Road, with plaques to memorialize them.
I can see why this program brought some sense of completeness to the dying man. But was surprised at the degree to which it brought a sense of security to my own aging understanding of death and where I might end up.
His story became a secret garden for me because it entails the layers of a revolving community--a healthy mix of Michigan soil and out-of-towners, just like Ann Arbor--that is surrounded by old institutional walls.
Finally, I find satisfaction in understanding that where I end up isn't entirely up to me--that how we handle our dead has an implicit "we" in the cycle. His story was handed to me like a baton by a thoughtful friend who grew up around here and has become a life-long connection for this Ann Arbor transplant. This man is not alone because one caring person heard his story and passed it on--we're all part of honoring his memory. It helped me understand that the loneliness of death is handled by a reverberating, creative society always pointing outside itself to what comes next.
[Originally published in January, 2020.]
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