Des Moines University honors those who give the ultimate gift

Denton Hopkins wants you to know about his older brother, Canyon Dane Hopkins. Widely known as “Moose” in his community, Earlham, IA, he had a heart that matched his physical size and athletic ability, from how he befriended less-popular kids in high school to how he saved the “brave bucks” he earned for enduring difficult cancer treatment procedures so he could give them to two young girls who were fellow hospital patients.

“Nothing mattered to Canyon more than his relationship with others. Everything he did, every purpose he had, was borne out of one thing – love,” Denton told attendees at Des Moines University’s annual body donor memorial on May 20. “Canyon’s last gift to this world, body donation, was his last act of love.”

At this year’s memorial, Des Moines University honored 45 individuals, nine of them honored veterans, who generously donated their bodies to DMU’s Body Donor Program to further medical education. In the past, the annual body donor memorial drew hundreds of DMU students, employees and donors’ families to campus, but, like the last two years, the event was held virtually this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The virtual memorial may be viewed here.

During the virtual memorial service, students representing five DMU degree programs and the military expressed their gratitude to the donors and their loved ones. DMU President and CEO Angela L. Walker Franklin, Ph.D., and Donald Matz, Ph.D., chair of the anatomy department, also spoke at the event. The DMU Choir and Chamber Ensamble performed several musical pieces, and the Army National Guard Honor Guard performed “Taps” to honor donors who were members of the military.

“My first patient, Lois, is incredible. I never met her in life, but she will be with me forever,” Luke Dorwart, a first-year student in DMU’s doctor of osteopathic medicine (D.O.) program, told the memorial audience. “Lois is selfless, as I know she would have been in life…Lois is a teacher; her lessons are the foundation of knowledge that will improve and save countless lives.

“Each donor is a teacher for many students as they were for families in life. Their donation is creating a fast-moving wave of knowledge that will spread and positively impact thousands of lives. Their gift to us is selfless beyond measure,” Luke added. “I will forever be in debt to Lois, whose lessons I will not waste. I promise you all, we will use this gift that you have given us.”

Classmate Erin Hoehnke, a D.O. student and an ensign in the U.S. Navy, compared the sacrifice made by donors’ loved ones to the sacrifices made by military members and their families, which motivated her to become a physician.

“To put it plainly, without the sacrifice of your loved one, our medical education would be lacking,” she said.

She noted that DMU’s core tenants of competence, professionalism and respect “really start in the anatomy lab,” which DMU’s clinical students experience early in their first year.

“It is impossible to enter without feeling a swell of gratitude as you see students and staff teaching and learning from each other and from the donor in front of them,” she said. During the lab, professors circulate to talk one-on-one with each group to deepen our understanding of concepts presented in lectures…We also learn to respect the body donors as our first patients. We give them our full attention and carefully take in everything they have to tell us. The anatomy lab is a revered space on campus where all types of students within the DMU community come together to study and learn.

“This invaluable asset to our education would not be possible without you. The sacrifices you and your loved ones have made in life and in death are immeasurable,” she added. “You have participated in, and improved, the education of every student on campus.”

Erica Preblich, a first-year student in DMU’s doctor of podiatric medicine (D.P.M.) program and president of the podiatric Class of 2025, said she felt “privileged” to honor the donors and their families on behalf of her class.

“The donors have given first year students the gift of discovery. They allowed us to discover the human condition and the unique, yet perfect way our bodies were built,” she said. “Without the generosity and selflessness of the donors, we would not be on our way to becoming competent, knowledgeable physicians. We are so grateful for the opportunity to memorialize their gift of life and sincerely thank them for believing in medicine, hope and an end to human suffering through their body donation.”

About the DMU body donor program

Des Moines University relies on the voluntary donation of bodies for anatomical and surgical study by its students. The study of the human body is essential in the study of medicine, and donated bodies are indispensable in the training of future physicians and health professionals. As of May 1, 2022, 3,118 people have donated the ultimate gift to DMU since detailed recordkeeping began in 1955.

“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.

When an individual donates his or her remains to the program and is accepted at the time of death, the University provides several services to the family such as transportation reimbursement to help offset costs at the funeral home, cremation services for the donor’s family, and several options regarding disposition of one’s cremated remains at the completion of the program. 

If a family decides they do not wish to receive their loved one’s remains, Ed Christopherson, F.D., B.S., DMU’s body donation coordinator, works with the family to provide graveside services for their loved one. A family can choose to have their loved one buried in the body donor mausoleum space at Chapel Hill Gardens in Des Moines or, if a donor was an eligible veteran, Christopherson will arrange a graveside service at the Iowa Veterans Cemetery in Van Meter, IA. Veteran donor families also will have the option to receive a United States flag during the military honors portion of the DMU memorial service, as many veteran donor families aren’t provided a flag at the time of their loved one’s passing.

“I feel that a proper burial or graveside service is a time of reflection, remembrance, and the unfortunate realization of a life completed here on earth,” Christopherson says.

A unique and special part of the program is that families are provided with keepsake items throughout the time a donor is in the program to show DMU’s appreciation to donors and their families. One is a personalized keepsake tree ornament with a holiday card, acknowledging that University students and employees are thinking and empathizing with them during the holiday season. A new addition to the 2022 memorial service is a personalized keepsake candle given to each family to take home following the donor memorial service.

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, F.D., B.S., at 515-271-1481 or, or visit the program’s website.

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