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Remembering the 'silent teachers', those who gave their bodies to science

“She might be gone but think of all the good she will still do” – Gretta Farrell remembers her mother Teresa.

EVERY YEAR A number of people in Ireland donate their remains to the country’s five medical colleges.

It is a remarkable gift to science – to humankind – and those who ended their days with such dedication will be remembered in a special memorial ceremony at Trinity College Dublin next week.

Gretta Farrell’s mother Teresa Stanley will be honoured in a particularly special way as the mass comes less than two months after she passed away.

“We’re all going in for the Mass on Wednesday,” she told “We’re looking forward to get up there and feeling that bit closer to her.”

Teresa died on 4 January this year but had decided long before to donate her remains to the School of Anatomy in Trinity College.

“A friend of hers died of breast cancer about 30 years ago and she donated her body to science. It was the first time she had heard of it.

“She felt that a lot of different things happened her over the years and she thought they have to be able to learn something from her body. She had breast cancer, gallstones and hip replacements. She thought, ‘It has to do some good for someone’.

She used to say, ‘Wouldn’t it be brilliant if someone could find something to help cure these things?’

“That was her attitude. She got the forms, asked me to sign them. That was it – she was doing it.”

The decision to give remains to science is an extremely personal one. The donation must be made by the person themselves and arrangements put in place before their death.

But it can be a tough outcome for a family too.

“Not everyone was happy about it,” admitted the Offaly native. “But we just had to say that it was her body, her decision. She felt very strongly about it.”

Many feel the need to go to a graveyard after a loved one passes away and the family have arranged for a stone, photograph and some words to be put on the headstone of Paddy, a son who died in 1972.

“We also had time to get used to it. The forms were signed years ago.

“Of course it was a surprise when she first said it. I had never heard of it either but I thought it was a great thing to do. A brilliant thing to do.”

The Farrells’ experience of donating remains to Trinity College was “no harder or easier than taking the body to the church” but Gretta talks about it with a hint of a smile and a large dose of pride in her voice.

“It was very dignified. The undertakers gave us time to say goodbye, the men carried out the coffin and the neighbours walked behind the hearse. And people in the town came out as they drove through Clara [county Offaly] to pay their respects.

“We also had a lovely funeral service on the Sunday – just as normal with pictures and flowers. People came and sympathised with us there.”

There is also an overwhelming love in a daughter’s voice knowing her devoted Mammy is still providing, doing some good.

“Her body will be gone for three years but to think of all the good she will do. Physiotherapists and doctors will learn about where things are meant to be and how they are meant to work.

As hard as it was to let her go…she’s just brilliant. She was just a fabulous person.

What happens after someone dies?

Donations of remains are strictly governed by the Anatomy Act 1832. The deceased must be registered with one of Ireland’s medical colleges as having the intention or recording the wish in a will is not sufficient.

The use of human bodies for the study of anatomy has been at the centre of medicine for hundreds of years. According to Trinity’s School of Medicine, it allows students to attain a mastery of anatomy which they would not be able to obtain by other means.

It allows surgeons in training to practice and evaluate their skills without risk to life. It facilitates research into the detailed anatomy relevant to new surgical procedures designed to improve medical care and treatment.

“Much of the teaching and research of our department is utterly dependent on the generosity of spirit of those who donate their bodies.”

When a person who has decided to donate their remains to science, a stringent process kicks in.

“After they take the body, the only thing you have to worry about is whether it is suitable,” remembers Farrell. “But you get that call within two hours. The school called to thank us all – to thank her sons and daughters and my father for letting her go.

“They told me how beautiful she looked. She didn’t look her age – her skin was clear and she looked well minded. They were compassionate and genuine. I felt like they could have been talking about their own mothers. They asked about her life and her children.

“I was quite upset at the time but I felt a lot better after talking to them. She was there and she was safe.

“They have so much respect for the bodies and the people. To hear things like that was good. They call them the silent teachers.”

The memorial, organised by Trinity College Dublin’s Anatomy Department, will be held on Wednesday from 5.15pm. The Act of Remembrance and Thanksgiving honours all those who donated their remains to the medical school. It will take place in the College Chapel at Front Square. All are welcome.

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