Willed Body Program strengthens medical education of WSU students

overview of cemetery
Greenwood Cemetery in Palouse, Wash. Photo by Sarah Schaub.

By Addy Hatch, College of Nursing

PALOUSE, Wash. – A picturesque cemetery in Palouse, Wash., is the final resting place of an important group of Washington State University benefactors — people who donated their bodies to the university for use in medical education.

WSU has had a Willed Body Program for decades. Several hundred prospective donors have filled out paperwork directing that their bodies be specially embalmed and sent to WSU when they die. The university takes about 30 to 40 donations a year, said David M. Conley, Clinical Associate Professor at the Elson S. Floyd College of Medicine and director of the College’s Anatomy and Willed Body Programs.

Donors’ bodies are used in anatomy instruction at the WSU Elson S. Floyd College of Medicine. Before the Spokane-based medical school welcomed its first class in 2017, the donations went to Pullman for use in the WWAMI medical education program and WSU undergraduate courses, and to other local colleges and universities.

a headstone with flowers on it.
Photo by Sarah Schaub.

About a decade ago WSU established the College of Medicine Memorial Plot in Palouse’s Greenwood Cemetery, on a hill just outside of town. About half the Willed Body donors elect to be interred there, Conley said.

“A lot of the donors are Cougs,” he said. “A number were in health professions and see it as a way to help those entering the field. Some had health struggles in life and wanted people to learn from them. Or they just like the idea that their body can be used for something positive after their death.”

Medical students at WSU start anatomy instruction their first week on campus. They work in teams of four or five and use the same cadavers throughout their studies. Conley said only authorized faculty and students have access to the bodies and they’re treated with dignity and respect throughout the time they’re used in medical education.

Students, for example, give group presentations and write reflections at the end of the term on what they learned anatomically and personally about their cadaver. Students also hold a ceremony to pay tribute to the donors who played such a critical role in their medical education.

A grave marker lists some of the donors who left their bodies to WSU’s Willed Body Program for use in medical education. Donors can elect to be interred there, or have their cremated remains returned to their families when they’re no longer being used by WSU. Photo by Sarah Schaub.

Bodies are used for one to four years, then cremated. Remains are either returned to the donor’s family or interred at the cemetery in Palouse in a memorial ceremony in September. Mark Kramer, of Kramer Funeral Home in Palouse, said most of the donations come from Eastern Washington and North Idaho. Families don’t pay for cremation or burial, though there may be costs for transport depending on where the donor is located, and for placing a donor’s name on a memorial stone at the cemetery.

Such gifts are critically important for medical education. The study of the human body provides the basis for understanding structure, function, aging, and disease, Conley said.

“We couldn’t provide the high quality, unique educational experience without the donors’ gift,” he noted. “It’s not a monetary scholarship, it’s a scholarship of learning – a never-ending gift.”


For information on the WSU Elson S. Floyd College of Medicine Willed Body Program, visit https://medicine.wsu.edu/give/willed-body-program/, call (509) 368-6600, or email wsu.willedbody@wsu.edu.

–Story by Addy Hatch, photos by Sarah Schaub

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