Medical Students, Donor Bodies, and the Scientific Sacred

How do medical schools, which the public expects to train doctors to be simultaneously scientific and humanistic, use ritual and ceremony to create and/or preserve a sense of the sacred in an intensely technocratic medical field? The objective of this study is to consider the donor memorial service as an event that works to sacralize both the medical profession and the donor bodies, which may shed light on larger questions about the persistence and changing forms of the sacred in a secular age. Additionally, how medical students are initiated into the doctor identity, and the beliefs about the body and the sacredness of life’s end that influence this new identity, are critical questions for understanding how doctors are able (or perhaps unable) to create professional identities that balance sacred and secular concerns, and religious and scientific beliefs. This mixed-methods project is based on a combination of ethnographic fieldwork at medical schools and a vignette experiment meant to clarify public opinion about cadaveric donation.