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Dissection and the Divine: Reflections on Cadaver Lab

Picture this: a group of seven college students, necks bent, scalpels in hand, stand over the dead body of an older man. They chat, make jokes, and hum to Disney music as they gently peel away skin and separate muscle from muscle. While the mood is light, and curiosity dances in the air, the students recognize that the work they’re doing is weighty. Working with cadavers is no easy task: it is physically, intellectually, and emotionally draining. It’s difficult to separate your eagerness from the uneasiness that comes from deconstructing a fellow human’s body.

Dr. Wakefield warned us about this. “Eventually,” he explained, “you will no longer see this as a human body, but as a grouping of tissues.” He urged us to be careful with this perspective, because, regardless of how we were coping with our work, this was still a human body and deserved our respect and care. While participating in a cadaver lab would be an impactful experience in any circumstance, I’m especially grateful to have the opportunity to work alongside other Christians, for our faith demands a perspective shift that extends into the laboratory. Before we began the dissection, Dr. Wakefield reminded us that we would be working on a body that was once beloved. “While we, as Christians, believe that the body is simply a vessel,” he said, “it’s important to remember that it once contained a soul.”

We were told a little bit about the man, an Arkansas resident, whose body we were to dissect, and Dr. Wakefield explained to us that this person, whoever he was, gave us the ultimate thing he could give. Allowing your body to be used in dissection is undoubtedly self-sacrifice for the betterment of others. Before we started cutting, Dr. Wakefield prayed over the man’s body—but mostly for the people who loved this man. He emphasized the need for respect as we dissected: “This was a brother, a father, a son, and there are people who loved him dearly. We need to keep that in mind as we work.” Then we opened the dissection table and pulled the sheet off. To my surprise, our cadaver had tattoos and facial hair, little features that emphasized the fact that he was once alive, that he had a life that I will never know anything about. I was shocked with how sad I was. I was sad that, in order for me to have this transformative learning experience, someone had to die. I was sad for the family that loved him, sad for the kids or grandchildren who no longer had a father or grandpa.

As we’ve been working on this dissection, my classmates and I have experienced an incredible amount of bonding. We are having a unique and impactful learning experience, but we are also creating friendships, a special type of friendship that happens over the grim work of cadaver dissection. We often talk to each other in an effort to mask any sadness with an air of normalcy. We sing or hum songs, ask questions—one day we discussed our favorite movies at length. I think cadaver lab is also fostering a stronger relationship between the students and the professor. Dr. Wakefield works alongside us, guides us, and chats with us as we dissect. He gives us input and kind instruction. He reminds us that it is okay to mess up; the first day, he told us, “If I wanted a perfect dissection, I wouldn’t let you guys touch the body.” When we mess up (which does happen, by the way) he explains to us what we did wrong and how we can fix it, if it’s fixable. While Dr. Wakefield is definitely in charge, in those hours we all work together, he becomes a peer. We recommend movies and music to each other; we talk about our favorite books; we revel in the beauty of the human body and the creativity of our Maker. I think the best way to acknowledge and appreciate God is to study His creation, and cadaver dissection offers an incredible opportunity for us to do just that.

Cadaver lab, I’ll admit, is more difficult than I expected—I leave every lab period with a back aching to be stretched out—but it’s also much more valuable. Anatomy is teaching me to compartmentalize. It’s teaching me to approach tasks with humility, to look forward to growth and challenge, to better understand the Creator through the masterpiece of the human body

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author. They do not claim to reflect the opinions or views of the Defendant or its staff members..

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