Dead but not gone

By Kris Wang

When he arrived at the workroom in the new Jinan University School of Medicine building for the first time, Xi Jiafa wanted to turn on the light but touched a skeleton beside the door instead. At that point, he felt that his hair was standing on edge.

It was the only time he was terrified by his job.

Xi, 57, has worked with dead bodies for almost 15 years. Every weekday, he arrives at the human anatomy lab at 7 a.m., preparing the specimens for classes. Different courses have different demands for the cadavers, and he needs to check the schedule to take out suitable bodies. For example, if one day some students are going to learn about the skeleton, Xi would choose an opened arm with exposed bones.

The work requires medical skill and manual labor. In the summer, the cadavers quickly become mildewed because of the wet rainy season. So Xi and his co-worker, Qu Jiansheng, have to put back the bodies into a preservative and take them out before class.

After the preparation, Xi has some time to rest unless a new donated body arrives the School of Medicine.

“You couldn’t know when the donors would die,” said Xi. “Sometimes we have to work late at night.” Sometimes terminal patients survive years after they sign the donor agreement, but sometimes a man signs up to donate and dies two days later.

During this semester, students have used more than 24 cadaver specimens while the number of new bodies didn’t reach 10, according to Xi.

Jinan University owns one of the four body donation registration and collection stations in Guangzhou. But the supply of dead bodies for dissection is still far short of demand.

Since the first policy on body donation in Guangzhou in 2000, only 1,630 people have registered, and 394 bodies were donated over 14 years, according to a report in 2015.

Sources of cadavers can’t rely only on donations; sometimes the police send unidentified bodies. Corpses come from homes, hospitals, funeral parlors, dark alleys and many other strange places.

When a corpse reaches the processing workroom, the first thing to do is cleaning up the body with a water hose and sterilizing it. Xi suits himself up because sometimes the bodies could smell badly or bring germs. Xi needs to find the carotid artery and inject formaldehyde into the body. It usually takes him a few minutes to figure out the right position except for fat bodies or the bodies of children.
Xi doesn’t like to deal with them because it’s hard to find the artery under a thick layer of fat and the blood vessels of children are too small.

In the end, the body is placed into an elevator to the basement, where more than 100 bodies are preserved in cold storage.

Xi chooses cadavers without a strong smell, which have been stored for at least one year, to distribute them to medical students in the lab. After being used, the cadavers would be dismembered and sent for cremation.

The government gathers the lists of bodies from each registration and collection station every May and engraves the persons’ names on the Guangzhou body donor monument.

The end of these donated bodies is the main reason why people reject donation. In Chinese traditional beliefs, the bodies need to be buried in the grave so that the dead could rest in peace. And China is still struggling to introduce cremation in rural areas.

Xi came from a small village in Hunan. The local government would give a grant to the family who agrees to donate a body. But the neighbors may criticize the family that does it for money, which becomes a huge impediment, according to Xi.

In Guangzhou, body donation has become more accepted with the development of more modern perceptions. The public has started to get rid of the traditional beliefs and has embraced the idea of body donation.

Last year, a retired professor even proposed an initiative to call on other teachers like him to sign the donor agreement. Xi described them as “the old revolutionaries who want to devote their last value to the society.”

Nowadays, few men would like to take over his job because of its poor salary and welfare. While Xi applied for this job a dozen years ago, he needed to compete with more than 30 people because of its stability.

Xi only earns about $272 per month, which was the minimum wage in Guangzhou. But more importantly, the potential danger of formaldehyde makes him worried about his health. The local government gives him extra $90 as an allowance for the special type of work.

But he would still consider returning here after he dies.
“I spend much more time with bodies,” Xi said with a slight smile. “It’s much easier to deal with them than with the living.”

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