A Matter of Life and Death

A Matter of Life and Death

Dr Lap Ki Chan delivering a speech on body donation to medical students in the Respect Ceremony 
Medical students observing a moment of silence in the Respect Ceremony

The Medical Faculty believes direct examination of bodies is the best way to teach students about anatomy, and thus produce well-trained doctors for Hong Kong. However, as society has prospered over the decades, a grim but very real problem has arisen: a shortage of bodies for medical study and training. Until recently, donation had provided an insufficient number of cadavers to meet the needs of the medical programme.

Therefore, in 2007 the Faculty started to actively promote its Body Donation Programme to encourage people to register to donate their bodies, and to open up discussion of a previously taboo subject.

The issue of how the body should be handled after death is a complex one in Chinese culture. Under Confucianism, our bodies belong to our parents, which to some people means that body donation with the purpose of medical dissection is an offence against filial piety. On the other hand, the highest principle of Confucianism is benevolence, which others believe they can honour through donating their bodies to help others.

"We want the public to know that even after death, they can still contribute to society. The students learn better, and when they learn better the public benefits. We want to enable people to look at death from another perspective," said Dr Lap Ki Chan, who has been responsible for developing and promoting the Body Donation Programme.

The Faculty has organised numerous public talks, reached out to organisations in health care and those that are active in life and death education, and conducted press conferences and media interviews.

As a result, the number of registration per year has shown a more than sixty-fold increase, from 27 in 2007 to 1,788 in 2013. The number of donated bodies increased from an average of one per year before 2007 to 55 in 2013. Others in the community, such as schools and charitable organisations, have also started to discuss body donation to increase the public's awareness.

"There are people who are not willing to donate their bodies. We are not trying to change their views; that is not our aim. Our aim is to disseminate information so that people can better understand our philosophy. Some people agree with it and are less hesitant in discussing the topic of death with their families and eventually register with our programme," Dr Chan said.

The Faculty asks students to honour donors through a respect ceremony held at the start of the first anatomy class of the year, and to write a reflective essay about their first encounter with the donated cadaver, which Dr Chan calls the "Great Body Teacher".

The Faculty also held a 2013 ceremony to open a memorial wall for body donors at the Garden of Remembrance of the Tseung Kwan O Chinese Permanent Cemetery.

The success of the endeavour has been overwhelming: not only have the needs of the anatomy programme been met, but through the hard work and dedication of Dr Chan and the other faculty and staff involved in the Body Donation Programme, the public has become more open-minded to the issue of body donation.

Dr Lap Ki Chan and team members, Mr Owen O. C. Chan, Ms Annie L. H. Kwan, Professor K. F. So, Dr G. L. Tipoe, Professor George S. W. Tsao and Mr Patrick W. L. Wong, received the Faculty Knowledge Exchange Award 2014 of the Li Ka Shing Faculty of Medicine for 'Life and Death Education through the HKU Body Donation Programme'.