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UC San Diego memorial site honors those who donated their bodies to science

These rock formations are part of a UC San Diego memorial dedicated to people who donated their bodies to science.
(Elisabeth Frausto)

People walking the Scripps Coastal Meander Trail might notice a clearing containing benches and unusual rock formations and stop to rest and look out across the Pacific. They might be unaware — unless they look beneath their feet — that the site at UC San Diego’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla pays homage to those who have aided medical research.

“It’s a memorial site dedicated to the donors of our UCSD body donation program,” said Maria Savoia, dean emeritus for medical education at the UCSD School of Medicine, who retired from the dean position in January.

“It’s a dedicated site for the families of the donors,” she said.

The area is called the UC San Diego School of Medicine Body Donation Program Memorial Site, according to Scott Barton, director of anatomical services at the School of Medicine, which includes the university’s body donation program.

This plaque on the ground at the memorial site will be illuminated by the sun as it shines through the slots in the rocks.
This plaque on the ground at the UC San Diego School of Medicine Body Donation Program Memorial Site will be illuminated by the sun as it shines through the slots in the site’s rock formations on the seasonal solstices and equinoxes.
(Elisabeth Frausto)

The site consists of two benches where people can “sit and reflect on the gift that their family member has made to education and research,” Barton said. A plaque on the ground between the benches and rocks reads “In memory of those who donated their bodies to science.”

During the seasonal solstices and equinoxes, the sun will shine through the slots in the rock formations, “reflecting straight through to the plaque,” Barton said.

“We wanted to put up a memorial to the donors because they’re very important to UCSD, to our science, to our education, to our research,” Savoia said.

The UCSD body donation program, which receives 450 to 500 body donations per year, is the second-largest such program in the country, she said. “People before they die, or at the time of their death, can will their bodies to our program, and those are considered incredibly great gifts.”

She said the university uses the donated bodies “to advance science, medicine, education. … Students learn about anatomy through dissection; we use some of the donations for that. Our researchers use tissues and parts of the body to investigate different aspects of things. Our faculty and people in the community actually use some of those gifts to perfect techniques for surgeries.”

“We are very, very proud of our program,” Savoia added. “We have a lot of guidelines in place, we have committee oversight, we have a public member that sits on our advisory committee, we report to the [UCSD] vice chancellor for research on an ongoing basis. … We’re very careful to make sure that everyone recognizes what a great gift these bodies are and that everything is treated with incredible respect.”

When people donate their bodies, Savoia said, “we basically take care of everything for them. We actually cremate all their remains when the use is done and then scatter them at sea” five miles past the Scripps Pier.

Two benches are placed at the body donation memorial site.
Two benches are placed at the body donation memorial site, where people can sit to remember their family members who donated their bodies to science.
(Elisabeth Frausto)

The memorial site is on the Coastal Meander Trail, which edges the campus of Scripps Oceanography and overlooks the pier.

“We wanted a place for the families to give them some closure,” Savoia said. “They don’t have a gravesite; they don’t have a place to go.

“This gives them a place ... where they can come and remember their loved ones. We wanted a place [with] easy access that would be meaningful to people, that was quiet but beautiful.”

The body donation program has held an annual service on Memorial Day weekend since 2013, except during the COVID-19 pandemic (it was canceled in 2020 and held virtually in 2021). During the service, donors’ family members gather to hear medical school students discuss the donors’ importance to them, Barton said.

Family members do not learn the specific use of each donation, but the gathering helps them understand that “one donor impacts thousands of people” as the students go on to treat others in their careers, Barton said.

“It makes them the physicians and surgeons that they are in the future,” he said. Other health care professionals such as emergency medical technicians, pharmacy students and physical therapists also benefit from studying the donated bodies, he added.

For more information and to view a new video about the memorial site, visit bit.ly/BodyDonationMemorial.