The other day, I went to a funeral that restored my faith in medicine.

I sat with a group of about 75 mourners clustered on wicker chairs at the front of Duke Chapel. From the back of the sanctuary, a Shaker hymn cut through the silence, the notes as sharp as the colored panes in the stained glass windows above us.

This memorial service was designed to recognize multiple losses–and celebrate multiple gifts. Four years ago, Duke’s Anatomical Gifts Program created the ceremony as a way to honor families whose loved ones donate their bodies for medical education. The School of Medicine uses about 70 cadavers each year in anatomy classes and for surgeons learning new techniques.

I have to admit, I was a bit skeptical about the healing potential of a ritual performed for a group of strangers whose relatives were already long gone. Would prayers be said? Would speakers use the word “cadaver”? Would the occasion be used to make a pitch for more donations? (Yes, yes and no, as it turns out.)

But as the service went on, I realized there was something powerfully curative in facing a truth our culture seems loath to admit: Humans are mortal creatures.

While acknowledging death is a public taboo, speakers at the ceremony stressed that in medicine, the recognition is an essential learning tool. And without actual bodies for students to work on, they said, the study of medicine could become dangerously abstract.

Daniel Schmitt, who teaches anatomy at Duke, tried to convey the poetry of that study: “The connection between truth and beauty is ever-present in our anatomy lab,” he said. “Human anatomy is beautiful and it is miraculous. It can’t be captured on a computer screen.”

First-year medical student Omar Rashid described working on a cadaver as a “privilege” that revealed both the fragility and resiliency of the human body. “I saw in his face perhaps the last expression he ever made,” Rashid said. “I put my hand on his shoulder and thanked him in a whisper for this tremendous gift of love from a man I’d never met.”

At a post-memorial reception in Duke Gardens, people sat stiffly in a circle of folding chairs, eyeing each other without talking much. But when I approached a woman named Sharon, she chatted easily about the ceremony and the death that had brought her there.

Sharon’s mother, Helen, died in a hospice two years ago of Alzheimer’s disease. On the day she passed, family members–who’d been at Helen’s side when she died–stayed in her room, waiting to hear whether Duke would accept her body.

“When the call came through I announced, ‘She’s been admitted to Duke!’ and everyone cheered,” Sharon said, smiling broadly at the memory.

For information about Duke’s Anatomical Gifts program, call 684-4124.