Spring 2021

A Memorial for the Selfless

Medical students honor those who donated their bodies to medical education.

A small, tree-filled garden graces the walkway between the Banner – University Medical Center complex and the College of Nursing. Filigreed metal pillars beckon passersby to enter a brick courtyard. Those who do learn they’re standing in the Dr. Norman Koelling Willed Body Memorial Garden.

The garden offers serenity and pleases the eye, but its significance goes much deeper.

“It is my hope that this site be considered a memorial for each and every loved one who participates in the University of Arizona Willed Body Program,” says Carol Brown ’68. 

Brown, a retired nurse, made the initial gift toward the creation of the garden, which opened in 2017. Brown understands firsthand how the families of those who donate their bodies for medical education may suffer from missing a traditional burial experience. Her mother was a body donor.

“The customary closing of the loop between life and death is not present. This garden can provide a place that fills that gap,” she says.

With her gift, Brown also wanted to honor Koelling, who ran the Arizona anatomy lab for decades. 

Each year, second-year medical students gather in the Koelling garden to plant trees in honor of the donors. They thank the donors’ families and listen to stories about the people whose bodies they’ve learned from.

The donors are also teachers, the students say. One woman who shared her father’s story at a recent ceremony said he had always longed to teach. At the end of his life, her father fulfilled his dream by donating his body to medicine.

“A patient is not a clean diagram of structures, like the ones drawn in our textbooks. They’re messy and intricate and wonderful,” student Tesneem Tamimi said at a recent ceremony. Then she addressed her donor directly: 

“There’s nothing more selfless than what you’ve done for us. I will carry you with me, always, as a doctor.”