A memorial was unveiled in the presence of a large gathering at Hofwijk cemetery on Saturday for people who have left their bodies to medical science. For some relatives it proved to be an extremely emotional time, but they were also glad that the memorial had finally arrived.

Some three hundred interested parties and relatives gathered at the cemetery in Rotterdam-Noord. One of them was Joke van der Wal. This Rotterdam woman lost her husband thirteen years ago. With her permission, her husband left his body to Erasmus MC, but at that time the after-care was very different than today.

Cold and distant

“Around three years after my husband’s death, I thought: that was cold and distant. He was taken away and I heard nothing more. I didn’t even get a letter,” remembers Van der Wal. “At a certain point I called the hospital. I then had a really good conversation of probably an hour with a hospital employee. And that person said that they would take this up in the department. Later, they started sending letters and a book was produced with the names of the deceased in beautiful calligraphy. I found that really special. And after a while, we also heard of the plans for a memorial.”

Mayor Ahmed Aboutaleb had the honour of unveiling the monument. In his speech he emphasised the importance of people leaving their bodies to medical science, and observed that sufficient numbers of people are currently prepared to do this. “This is extremely helpful for science. But, at the same time, it is important that relatives have a place they can visit,” said the Mayor beneath bright sunshine at Hofwijk cemetery.

Broken disc of life

The official unveiling then took place together with an explanation of the memorial’s symbolism. The memorial comprises a large serpentine stone, which is symbolic for ‘the splendour and balance of the body’, according to artist Wim ter Steege. A poem by former student Jolien Hilhorst is engraved on the glass plate, which ‘captures the light’.

A piece is missing from the round ‘disc of life’; this piece is symbolic of the deceased. The park around the monument has also been laid out specially: enclosed by a low hedge with a cruciform path. In one of the corners there is a large round seat for visitors who wish to sit in contemplation.

Personal mission

The memorial was a personal mission for Professor of Anatomy Gert-Jan Kleinrensink. “I am very grateful to all those people who contributed towards this memorial,” he said after the unveiling.  “And I also feel gladness and relief that we have been able to achieve this.” It did, of course, take some time: the long and winding route to the gathering at Hofwijk already started in 2010. “This was mainly because of financial reasons,” said Kleinrensink. “The university couldn’t pay for it: we are only allowed to spend money on education and research. Luckily we were able to raise 12,000 euros via the Erasmus University crowdfunding platform.”

The platform was launched last year and this was its first successful project. The money raised was spent entirely on the monument: “The coffee and sandwiches were provided by the Municipality of Rotterdam,” emphasised Kleinrensink.

Symbolically together

I want to be cremated here at Hofwijk and then scattered. Somewhere, symbolically, we’ll be together again.

Joke van der Wal

Now, Van der Wal has a place to remember her husband. The memorial has affected her deeply. “It is such a well-conceived memorial. And the poem is also incredibly beautiful,” she said, moved. Delighted: “If my husband could be with me now, I don’t know what he would have thought. A memorial for dad!”

In spite of the fact that he is not really buried or scattered, Van der Wal now has a place where she can be close to her husband even after her own death. “I first wanted to be taken to the Zuider cemetery after my death, but I’ve changed my mind now. I want to be cremated here at Hofwijk and then scattered. Somewhere, symbolically, we’ll be together again. The whole family agrees with this too. It’s really good that there is a memorial. I’m so grateful to Mr Kleinrensink for this.”

Annual meeting

The memorial is now open to all. It will take a prominent place on the Night of Lights at the cemetery on 5 November. As well as the memorial, Erasmus MC will also organise an annual meeting for relatives in the education centre. On those afternoons the names of the people who left their bodies to medical science the previous year will be read out and included in a memorial book. Medical students will also read poetry, experiences will be shared and music played.