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Monument for donors

Text by Eliane Kaaij & photography by Dirk de Jong

For some people, making a contribution to society does not stop at the moment of death. Many choose to donate their organs, and some opt to donate their body to science. The VU University Medical Center is a place where, through writing a testament, an individual can donate his or her body to the hospital and university for teaching and research purposes. The dissection room of the department of Anatomy and Neurosciences is the place where medical students first come in contact with the human body to receive education in anatomy. In a safe and controlled educational environment, they make their very first acquaintance with these bodies. Surgeons practice new techniques and scientists gratefully use human tissue to do their research. This can only be done because of the people who have decided to donate their remains to the VU University Medical Center at the end of their life. When a person signs up for body donation, this can be difficult for the family. When a donor dies, there is a period of 24 hours within which the body has to be brought into the facility. Family members can organize a memorial on their own, but their loved-one is no longer present. We realize that this may leave a need in family members to deal with the passing of their beloved.

In recent years, the department of Anatomy and Neursciences has reflected more and more on the consequences that such a decision may have on the family of the donor. At the same time, students have asked questions about this. Therefore, we decided that it was time to show our gratitude for the enormous gift these people gave us.

We found a great partner in the De Nieuwe Ooster cemetery. From the start of our initiative they shared our vision and were so positive about our ideas that they decided to donate a memorial monument to the department. The artist who created the monument is Léon van Kuijk. Behind the monument is a stretch of forest where the ashes of the remains will be scattered. Families and friends can visit the monument at any time.

On Saturday June 6th 2015 the monument was revealed. We invited a selected group of family members (it was impossible to invite all family members), students, coworkers, and colleagues from the VU University Medical Center. The service was held at the ‘Koningskerk’ across the street from the De Nieuwe Ooster. The service was respectful, modest and beautiful. Jeroen Geurts (head of the department of Anatomy and Neurosciences), Annet Doesburg (director of the De Nieuwe Ooster) Léon van Kuijk (Artis), Yunus Ahmed, Alexander Blijnsdorp and Abegail Straal (medical students), and a representative of the city of Amsterdam gave short talks during the ceremony. Between the talks there was live music performed by students of the VU University Medical Center under supervision of Vera Kerstens. Family members as well as students and colleagues were touched and moved by the memorial service. People were united in their sadness and all shared the loss of their loved one.

After the service we walked from the church to the monument. At the monument a student played the cello. At the monument, family members were given the chance to lay down flowers.

In the condolence room of the cemetery people could meet up and talk to each other as well as to coworkers of the VU University Medical Center. People asked many questions, and were thankful for the monument and memorial service. It was touching to listen to their stories. One woman told us that she used to be unhappy about the choice her father made to donate his body to science, but after the service she was extremely proud. Another visitor explained she was very happy that there finally is a place for her to visit. It also changes the view of students; it made them realize how special these donors are.

We look back on a very special day, for the VU University Medical Center, the department, the students, the family members, and above all the people who have donated their bodies to the department.

We are forever grateful “to those who donated their bodies to science”, which is the epitaph on the stones on which the monument is set. Each year, the department will organize a memorial service for those who have donated their body to science. And we are very proud to be able to do so.