With familiar hymns, consoling words and peaceful prayers, the State Anatomy Board thanked the families of its many donors during the annual memorial service yesterday at Springfield Hospital Center in Sykesville.
As the warm summer sun streamed through towering oak trees, a crowd of more than 100 gathered before a stark gray monument, dedicated to "those who gave unselfishly of themselves to advance medical education and research."
Many placed simple bouquets of daisies or a single red rose on the stone that marks the grave of the thousands who have willed their bodies to science in the past three decades.
"I don't know of a prettier spot than here," said Walter E. Rhodes, who has frequently traveled from his home on the Eastern Shore for the service since his wife donated her body to science 10 years ago. "I will be staying here one day, too."
Long before Jane Rhodes died of cancer, she had made her decision, her husband said.
"She survived cancer for 22 years and that is one reason we both decided to be donors," Rhodes said. "She hoped students would find something they could use to help someone else."
The couple's rationale is typical of the nearly 1,200 people who donated their bodies to the Anatomy Board this past year, said board Director Ronald S. Wade.
"Overall, people donate their bodies with the idea of helping other people," he said. "The number of donors is increasing and we are meeting the anatomical resource needs of the entire state. We can have a greater impact on medical study, from paramedics to trauma training to surgical students. With medicine advancing at such a pace, we have the means to have an impact on so many lives."
The Anatomy Board established the hospital burial site in 1973 and organizes the memorial service there annually on the third Monday of June. The board returns cremated remains to families who request them and inters the others - about 700 donors yesterday - in a shady grove at Springfield. The average age of the donors is 70.
Dr. Larry Anderson, course director of anatomy and neurobiology at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, spoke of a teacher who became a donor 32 years ago when he began studying medicine.
"She continued to teach after her death and I think of her every year when I speak to the new students," Anderson said to the assembly. "I introduce the students to your loved ones and tell them that they will have the privilege of learning from these donors."
After placing a proclamation from Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. praising the "large number of caring Maryland residents" beside the monument, Wade pointed out the numerous medical students in the crowd.
"It is important that students have the means to develop expertise so that ultimately the lives of their patients improve," he said. "By donating their bodies, these people leave behind a legacy that is a gift of education and health for others. This is the ultimate gift, one that is in addition to the life they have lived."
Tiffany Bohan, a University of Maryland medical student from Hagerstown, said she quickly learned the value of the donations.
"Without these donations, medicine would not be as advanced as it is today," Bohan said. "We will be working our whole lives with real people. We need to see real lungs, for example, instead of a picture of lungs."
Three generations of Dorothy Kerns' family remembered the 84-year-old great-grandmother who donated her body last year.
"I liked that the medical students came to show their respect," said Kerns' daughter Patricia Swartz of Bel Air. "My mother was so determined to make this donation that she sold her grave next to my father. I am so glad that she has come to this peaceful place."
Stephanie Taylor of Baltimore came to the service to honor her mother, Emily Taylor, who died in April at age 84.
"She had always been a proponent of schooling and she liked the educational aspect of the donation," said Taylor. "I see the value of it at this service today and it is nice to know her gift is appreciated."
Pat Brown and her two children planned their trip to Maryland from Oceanside, Calif., to coincide with the date of the service, which would honor her mother, Betty S. Brown, who died nearly four years ago.
"The service really helped," Pat Brown said. "I could not have asked for a more peaceful place. I loved the music, the nondenominational prayers and the wonderful surroundings."
"And nobody wore black," said Brown's 9-year-old daughter, Molly Weber.
Pat Brown's father, who died in 1984 and would have been 85 yesterday, and her grandmother are also among the donors buried at Springfield.
"I guess I can call this spot my family plot," she said.
The memorial service recognizes lives well lived, Wade said. It also can be part of the healing process for surviving family members.
"Our services give families a chance to look back at the healing that has gone on and to remember," he said.
The service gave Janine Green the opportunity to honor her grandmother, Elma Adams, who died in 2002.
"Her decision to donate her body was not easy for us, but we accepted it because it was what she wanted," said Green. "This service is the finality of her moving on."