Most people do not choose their names, but they can choose to love them, loathe them or change them. About a decade ago, one woman was known as Mercedes — like the German luxury car. It was not the name her parents gave her. It was not how she was listed on her death certificate.
Mercedes was the name she was given by a medical student dissecting her cadaver as part of the gross anatomy course at Indiana University School of Medicine Northwest in Gary.
“Why do you call her Mercedes?” asked anatomy instructor Ernest F. Talarico Jr., PhD.
“Because,” the student said, “she’s going to enable me to purchase a bunch of Mercedes.”
For Talarico, the student’s comment was the wake-up call that things needed to change. “That wasn’t what we were trying to communicate or trying to teach,” he said.
The experience of dissecting a cadaver in a lab always has separated the medical profession from the rest of society, but ideas about what — beyond basic anatomy — that rite of passage should teach have evolved.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, dissection was seen as a transformative event, and medical students used black humor to defuse tensions surrounding what was then seen as a quasi-legal and ethically questionable activity. In the mid-20th century, anatomy became an opportunity for physicians in training to develop a skill that medical sociologists called “detached concern.”
Today, most medical schools opt for a more humanistic approach that uses ritual ceremonies to thank cadaver donors, encourages students to reflect on their experiences and, in some cases, allows students to meet and correspond with donors’ loved ones.