Book review: The Great Dead Body Teachers, Jackie Dent

Putting the human being into human body dissection.

The Great Dead Body Teachers dissects the world of anatomy from a very personal perspective. 

Jackie Dent uses her years of journalistic expertise to take us on a journey to uncover why both her grandparents – Ruby and Julie – donated their whole bodies to science. It is important to note that whole-body donation is not organ donation. The latter is about keeping donors alive, so body parts can be transplanted into someone else, whereas whole-body donation is signing up at a local university to be used for medical research and education when you are very much dead. 

Struggling to read the densely worded medical papers, Dent turns to interviewing many people in the industry of anatomy to uncover what may have happened to her grandparents’ bodies. From rockstar professors like Goran Štrkalj, who has been published widely in scientific and medical journals, to a 15-year-old who landed a job in the anatomy department of the University of Queensland shifting dead bodies around in 1962, Dent interviews anatomists, doctors, surgeons, lab technicians, students and even anatomical artists of medical illustrations, taking us down different veins to find answers.

Dent weaves anecdotes and historical research to describe who the donors were and why they decide to donate. Her writings go much further than just finding out about her grandparents as she delves deep into the world of body donors, discovering that there’s a whole network of cadavers (and even just certain body parts!) that will be flown to other countries for greater use.

The ethical arguments around whole-body dissection fester under the work, especially historical accounts around the injustice of unclaimed bodies used by universities. It’s clear that human dissection has been both celebrated and demonised over the years.

The more she examines, the more questions arise for Dent. Did her grandparents donate for science? To save on funeral costs? To feel not so alone in death? And it raises the most important question for the reader: would you donate your whole body to science?

With more questions than answers, Dent attends an anatomist conference learning about the ‘great body teachers’ of medical school Tzu Chi in Taiwan where students and faculty meet with the family of the donors to ensure the student is not separate from the donor, to be reminded that cadavers are people not things, and that these people are showing us – the living – how we live. 

Dent visits an experimental research facility and even attends an anatomy course herself, observing students dissecting bodies in front of her very eyes. But it’s when she shares a story of watching online the University of Queensland’s annual thanksgiving ceremony for body donors with her parents that brings us closer to the heart of the work. There is the buzz of life in the house while Dent watches the ceremony over Zoom. A student in the ceremony says, ‘In class, when looking at the brain or a heart, it’s hard to not wonder who this body belonged to, how much they laughed and loved, and what kind of life they lived.’

Read: Exhibition review: On the Edge, Royal Botanic Gardens Sydney

The Great Dead Body Teachers opens up the conversation about death and invites us all to consider that talking about what happens to our bodies after death may just bring a better understanding of each other in life.

The Great Dead Body Teachers by Jackie Dent
Publisher: Ultimo Press
ISBN: 9781761150487
Format: Hardback
Pages: 400pp
Publication date: 8 March 2023
RRP: $36.99

Lisette Drew is a writer, theatre maker and youth literature advocate, who has worked nationally and overseas on over 50 theatrical productions. Her play, Breakwater, was shortlisted for two playwriting awards and her novel The Cloud Factory was longlisted for The Hawkeye Prize. In 2022 she received a Kill Your Darlings Mentorship and was a City of Melbourne Writer-in-Residence. Lisette shares her love for stories and storytelling running writing and theatre workshops for children.