Kerry Peterson speaks up for the dead. As manager of the U’s Body Donor Program and instructor in the medical school’s anatomy lab, he has preserved, studied, and kept tabs on thousands of bodies given to the U in an ultimate act of service.
He is on call around the clock all year long, comforting family members whose loved ones have recently died or who have wondered how scientists and students are learning from their bodies. And sometimes he must ensure that the bodies are used as intended: Years ago, Peterson ended a program that allowed youth groups and others to tour cadaver labs, calling it a “sideshow.”
Bodies are donated to the U for future doctors, nurses, and other health care professionals to better understand human anatomy, and to practice operations and life-saving procedures. They’ve helped develop artificial hearts, lungs, and vertebrae; assisted in the creation of genetic tests; improved catheters, intubation techniques, and methods to harvest stem cells. They’ve also enhanced knee, spine, and brain operations. And they’ve expanded what researchers and doctors know about dementia, autism, strokes, and other conditions.
“The sacrifice the family makes is, they wake up every morning and mom’s not in the ground,” Peterson says. “They look toward the University of Utah and go, ‘Mom’s being worked on today. I wonder how long that’s gonna last?’ Because they care. … Somebody needs to look out for their interests.”
Peterson calls the donors “bars of gold”—and he is their guardian.
LEARNING THE ROPES
Peterson estimates he has embalmed around 10,000 bodies, both through his 34 years at the U and 13 as a funeral director. He even co-wrote a human anatomy dissection guide.
As a child, the last place he pictured working was at a morgue. Growing up in the rural northern Utah town of Tremonton, he hunted and fished and cleaned his own game. But he avoided the mortuary when he rode his bike downtown. “The mortuary creeped me out,” he says.
Years later, after working long hours pulling sugar beets from the frozen mud while in high school, the idea of working at the morgue didn’t seem so bad. And when the opportunity came up, he took it. Peterson started out washing the hearse, running errands, vacuuming the chapel—with his head firmly averted from the body in the coffin.
Eventually, he began to understand and appreciate the nuances of the funeral business. “It’s art, science, law, business,” he explains. But, the “big hook,” he says, is that on a family’s worst day after a loved one’s death, “you’re the guy they call.”
He brought that sense of reverence and family service to the U’s Body Donor Program. But when Peterson arrived, he says, the U wasn’t ready to face its fears, either.
GRIEVING A BODY DONOR
How do you mark the passing of a life when you don’t have a body to bury? That’s a question that confronted Jennifer Toomer-Cook BA’95 and her siblings twice—when their father and then, years later, mother chose to donate their bodies to the U’s Body Donor Program.
Their answer: Throw a party—a celebration of life, where they displayed their parents’ pictures and mementos, served their favorite foods and drinks, and toasted their memories. But that doesn’t mean it was easy. The rituals that traditionally mark the end of life—the viewing, funeral, and burial—weren’t available.
In remembering when Gerald Ross Toomer died in 2005, Toomer- Cook recalls thinking, “Off he went, and he was gone forever. We didn’t have the prayers and the funeral and all those things that we rely on in times of uncertainty. We had to make them up.”
Technically, families can hold a funeral with the body present. The mortuary can embalm and prepare the body, and the U would pick up the body later. Instead, Toomer-Cook, her two siblings, and their mother turned their family home into a museum. They displayed their father’s saxophone from when he played in a jazz band, his published poetry, his diploma from the United States Military Academy at West Point, and pictures from his travels around the world. His favorite swing music played while guests ate chocolate chip cookies.
Toomer-Cook says his decision to donate was noble—and in keeping with how he lived. “He thought learning was the reason we’re here…. He was generous with his time and knowledge. That was his final act of generosity.”
Barbara Toomer announced her own decision to donate her body 48 hours before her death earlier this year, but it didn’t come as too much of a surprise. As a well-known champion for people with disabilities and the poor, Toomer (who contracted polio and used a wheelchair) was “an advocate for people who didn’t have a voice to speak out,” says Toomer-Cook.
Having fond memories of her husband’s celebration of life, Barbara Toomer requested one, too. “She was as unconventional as they come,” Toomer-Cook says. “How fun to raise a glass and tell fun stories and laugh through your tears.”
THE EARLY DAYS
The U’s medical school opened in 1905 as a two-year program taught by “frontier doctors.” There was no law allowing students to study cadavers, but a photo from the time shows what may have been the first human cadaver used at the school. The picture of men wearing white smocks, but no gloves, gathered around a decomposing body on a medical table hangs in Peterson’s office.
The U’s “donors” were mostly the poor—sent by cooperating county physicians who were allowed to dispose of unclaimed bodies—until the 1930s or 1940s, when Edward I. Hashimoto BA’30 (and medical certificate, 1932), a U anatomy professor from 1935 to 1985, created the U’s first body donor program. Peterson joined the U at the end of Hashimoto’s tenure.
But even then, the program flew under the radar. “We didn’t have literature. We didn’t have a number in the phone book. People who wanted to donate their bodies to science called the general number of the university hospital, and they’d get transferred all over until they finally sometimes got to us,” Peterson recalls. “They had to be persistent.”
In Peterson’s telling, the body donor program was viewed by some as a potential liability. Nobody wanted to end up as front-page news like the University of California, Irvine. In the late 1990s, the director of their body donor program was caught stealing and selling body parts and losing track of donors. At the time, Peterson testified about how programs should be run.
“This business has been strewn with scandal from the day anybody even thought about drawing anatomy,” Peterson says, explaining that body snatchers in the 1800s stole corpses from graves and sometimes committed murder to supply anatomy professors and medical students.
Controversies in other parts of the country aren’t ancient history: Earlier this year, a man in Michigan who sold or leased donated body parts went on trial for defrauding customers by selling infected body parts.
Even though the U’s program hasn’t been involved in such controversy, when Peterson first started he was told to keep the phone number hidden. In the late 1980s, after having to turn away potential research recruits because the U didn’t have enough bodies to meet the demand for study, Peterson placed an ad in the Yellow Pages under the category of “pre-need” funeral arrangements, and the program got its own listing in the phone book. With a little publicity, and some literature, donations doubled from 40 to 80 that year.
‘DOING HER WORK’
When Lori Ellen Nelson BS’86 died last year of complications related to Crohn’s disease, her death was unexpected. But the 56-year-old’s plans for after were very clear: Printed on a white sheet of paper were the music and Bible verses she wanted at her funeral, along with decorations of “bright, happy wildflowers,” and a short list of other requests.
Her first priority on that list: that her body go to the U, which made perfect sense to her family. She was a teacher (winner of the Huntsman Award for Excellence) and would want her body to benefit the training of the next generation of physicians and researchers.
When her mother, Jane Nelson, called the Body Donor Program for an update, she was happy to hear that her daughter’s body was continuing what she did in life. “ ‘Well, let me look her up,’ ” Jane recalls a program employee telling her. “ ‘Yes, she’s currently doing her work at Snow College.’ And that made me feel good,” Jane says.
Jane’s mother, Nadine Baker, may have inspired Lori. Baker also gave her body to the U after she died at age 93 in 2002. Both devout Christians, they were certain that their bodies could be put to better use. Jane recalls her mother saying, “Jane, now why would anybody want to put a dead body in the ground when you know that I’m in heaven with the Lord? … You know they can really learn from me.”
Initially, Jane wasn’t so sure. And the thought of her mother’s body being cut bothered her. Talking to Peterson put her at ease. “He assured me by saying, ‘We are respectful. She will be given a name. She will be cared for.’ And it just made me feel peaceful, that this was something she wanted and that they would take care of her and honor her.”
BODY DONATION FACTS AND FAQS
average number of bodies donated per year in the 1980s
bodies donated in 2017
number of bodies in use by the program today
3 months to 2 years
the length of time a donor body will be used
amount donors save on funeral and mortuary expenses by donating
WHO CAN DONATE AND HOW?
The U accepts a wide range of bodies from throughout the Intermountain West. The donor, or their surviving family, must fill out a bequeathal form and return it to the U.
WHO CAN’T DONATE?
The U doesn’t accept infants or small children because of a lack of research funding for those age groups. Donors can’t have communicable diseases, such as HIV or tuberculosis.
And donors who have had a major surgery within two months of death, who have been in a traumatic accident, are obese, or have ascites, edema, or jaundice are usually turned down because those conditions are incompatible with the process used to preserve bodies.
WHERE DO THE BODIES GO?
The first priority is medical education at the U for undergraduates, graduate and medical students, and residents. The U also supplies bodies to colleges throughout Utah, as well as in Idaho, Colorado, and Wyoming.
HOW ARE DONORS HONORED?
Donors are recognized at an annual Celebration of Life Monument Gathering at Library Square in Salt Lake City, where their names can be engraved on the monument, along with the names of organ donors.
WHEN IS THE RESEARCH FINISHED?
The U pays for cremation of the remains, which are then placed in the University Donors Grave at the Salt Lake City Cemetery, picked up by the family at the U, or returned to the family via U.S. mail.
Most families choose the U (private companies seek body donations, too) after hearing from donor families about their experiences. And besides the benefits to science, donation can also take some of the pressure off grieving families. As the final part of the process, the U cremates the bodies, files the death certificate, and notifies the Social Security Administration. And while families of donors can hold funerals (and can receive their loved one’s cremated remains from the U), they don’t need to buy caskets.
The U’s mission is to further medical education and research, Peterson says. But “our first order of business is attending to the families of the donors. Above all—above the needs of science, above the needs of education, above the University of Utah—this donor program advocates for the families of the donors. And then we perform our mission.”
Lori’s sons weren’t with her when she died, and they wanted to see her one last time after she had already been taken to the U. Jane remembers trying to dissuade them. But when they arrived at the U’s morgue, “Lori was laid out, and she looked beautiful,” Jane says. “All three boys got to kiss their mom goodbye.”
Donors often have special requests, which Peterson does his best to honor. One donor was a doctor and wanted his stethoscope hung above his body. Another donor’s photo album was displayed near her body, with pictures of her as a newborn through the time she jumped out of an airplane on her 90th birthday.
Medical students in the anatomy lab learn not just the cause of death, gender, and age of the donors, but also the first name of their “first patient.” They often address the cadavers by name and talk to them before each dissection to explain what they are going to do.
“They’re not treated like dolls,” Peterson says. “I don’t know how many times I’ve felt this, you’re sitting there dissecting a hand and you wonder, did those fingers play the piano? Did they change diapers? Did they turn wrenches on a car?”
Working on the dead exacts a toll, but Peterson says he’s involved in a virtuous circle. Donors give to benefit the health of future generations. Medical students and researchers work on the bodies to benefit humanity. “It’s an honor,” he says, “to do what I do.”
—Heather May is a Salt Lake City-based freelance writer and former Salt Lake Tribune reporter.
WEB EXCLUSIVE PODCAST
In 2016, crews at the University of Utah found human remains at a construction site. These remains were later identified as the remains of anatomical cadavers, used by the U medical school sometime between 1905 and 1933. The discovery launched a nearly year-long investigation into who the remains may have belonged to and how they ended up in the soil beneath one of the U’s most historic buildings.
Listen to the award winning seven-part podcast series and learn the story of the bones and about the investigation into their origins on Secrets of the Campus Cadavers.