Body donors memorialized for generous gifts to Des Moines University

Des Moines University | Body Donor Memorial Servivce 2020

The study of the human body is essential in the study of medicine. On June 26, 2020, Des Moines University honored 59 individuals, 13 of them honored veterans, who generously donated their bodies to further medical education. In the past, the annual body donor memorial drew hundreds of DMU students, employees and donors’ families to campus, but it was held virtually this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“This year has been an unprecedented year with the COVID-19 pandemic, and unfortunately due to social distancing guidelines and recommendations from the World Health Organization and Centers of Disease Control, DMU’s body donor program is unable to hold a live memorial service,” said Ed Christopherson, anatomical coordinator of the body donor program. “However, we understand and value the importance of memorializing our body donors.”

Despite having to occur virtually, the memorial was no less of a celebration of the lives and contributions of the donors. Several students spoke during the memorial, including Michaela Rziha, president of the physician assistant program’s Class of 2021. She expressed gratitude for the “gifts of truth, goodness and beauty” donors gave to her and her classmates. She described lessons learned from her donor’s heart.

“When I place my stethoscope on the chest of a patient, I hear the thumps of their heart valves snapping shut, but when I picture that beating heart in my mind, it’s her heart that I see,” she said. “These donors made flat textbook images a tactile reality for us…How privileged we were to have this experience! How generous the hearts of these donors and their loved ones to give up their bodies for students they will never know personally.”

Shayla Shojaat, a member of the osteopathic medical Class of 2023, described the donors as “our best teachers” and “our first patients.”

“[They were] the patients that helped us learn the intricacies of the human body. The patients that further ignited our passions for science and medicine. The patients that taught us the importance of maintaining the dignity of a human life at all stages. The patients that invested in us students. The patients that invested in the future of health care,” she said.

Samuel Memmelaar, president of the podiatric medical Class of 2023, thanked the donors and their families for their “great gifts of compassion, selflessness, humility and generosity.”

“Your loved ones are cherished in ways you may not have known or expected, teaching us how intricate and unique the human body was created to be,” he said. “Each of us speaking represents hundreds of future medical professionals that have been truly impacted by this amazing gift.”

Cory Barnish, a member of the osteopathic medicine Class of 2023 and a second lieutenant in the Iowa Army National Guard, spoke in honor of donors who served in the military.

“I can’t think of too many things more selfless than serving our country and at times spending months away from our loved ones to ensure their safety,” he said. “Well, sure enough, they figured out something else…Those military members were so caring, so selfless, they donated their body for hundreds of future doctors to learn the beauty of their anatomy.”

Halie Larsen, a student in DMU’s master of science in anatomy program, said lessons learned from the body donors went beyond anatomical structure and function.

“They reminded me how fragile and unique our lives are and that we should all do our best to leave our mark on this world – and your family members did just that,” she said. “The lessons we have learned from your family members will be carried with us forever and help us as future teachers and/or health care providers.”

The donors also honed students’ interactions with each other, said Abby Panek, president of the doctor of physical therapy Class of 2022. “In working with our small groups, we got to experience collaboration amongst our peers. This is a skill that is so vital in medicine: being able to work together with other medical professionals to produce the best outcome for each patient,” she said. “As we navigated teamwork within our lab groups, we were able to understand how to put our patients first and learn from each other in the process.”

About the DMU body donor program

Des Moines University relies on the voluntary donation of bodies for anatomical and surgical study by its students. Donated bodies are indispensable in the training of future physicians and health professionals. As of May 1, 2020, 3,038 people have donated the ultimate gift to DMU since detailed recordkeeping began in 1955. When an individual donates their remains to the program, the University reimburses a portion of the transportation costs, provides cremation services for the donor’s family, and includes a personalized plaque of each donor studied that year.

“Thanks to the incredibly selfless gift made by these individuals, we are able to uniquely educate and train our DMU students in anatomy, as well as educate students from local schools about how to take care of their bodies,” said Donald Matz, Ph.D., chair of the DMU anatomy department.

Making arrangements prior to someone’s death is uncomfortable to discuss at times, but planning ahead ensures the body donor’s wish will be fulfilled. For more information about DMU’s Body Donor Program, contact Ed Christopherson, anatomical coordinator of the program, at 515-271-1481 or, or visit the program’s website.

Beginning July 1, 2020, DMU will implement additional changes to its body donor program to memorialize donors. Each donor family receives a keepsake snowflake tree ornament from the program, personalized with the donor’s name, year of birth and year of death. 

“Donating an individual to our program is a humble decision along with an indispensable gift to our medical students. The donors understand the importance of education, and this is why many selflessly give their body for medical education,” says Christopherson. “Providing a personalized keepsake during one of the most emotional holidays after the loss of a loved one is another way to say ‘thank you’ to the donor’s family.”

He says the University also is implementing a graveside service at Chapel Hill Gardens in Des Moines for families who choose to bury their loved ones in the body donor mausoleum space. 

“A graveside service is a time of reflection, remembrance and the unfortunate emotions of finality of a death,” Christopherson says.  

In addition, donor families of veterans can now request to schedule a graveside service at the Iowa Veterans Cemetery in Van Meter through the body donor program office. Veteran donor families also will have the option to receive a United States flag during the military honors portion of the DMU memorial service, beginning in 2021, as many veteran donor families aren’t provided a flag at the time of their loved one’s passing.

Scroll to Top