Gifted mausoleum supports new body donation program at OUWB
An image of a ribbon being cut in front of the vault
Officials from OUWB, Pixley Funeral Homes, and the city of Rochester cut the ribbon for the OUWB Mausoleum and Receiving Vault on Oct. 28, 2022. (Photo by Rob Hall Photography)

Representatives from OUWB, Rochester, and Pixley Funeral Homes recently unveiled a mausoleum that will be the final resting place for those who generously donate their bodies to medical education.

On a glorious autumn afternoon, about 30 people attended the Oct. 28 ribbon-cutting for the OUWB Mausoleum and Receiving Vault located in Mount Avon Cemetery, near downtown Rochester.

The vault will house those who donate their bodies to medical education through the recently launched OUWB Body Donation Program. Use of the building was donated in-kind by the city of Rochester with redesign overseen by Pixley.

“We are grateful to the Pixley family for partnering with us to support our medical student education, research, and the university,” said Ora Hirsch Pescovitz, M.D., president, Oakland University. “This heartfelt gift-in-kind will impact our medical students and students studying other professions such as physical therapy, or biological engineering.”

“This partnership means that we can give medical students the opportunity for valuable research, while ensuring that body donors are interred with the absolute most compassionate care,” said Vern Pixley, Dignity Memorial Senior Managing Director, Central Business Unit.

“Without this, we can’t have a body donor program,” said Malli Barremkala, M.D., associate professor, Department of Foundational Medical Studies, and founding director of OUWB’s Body Donation Program.

“I’m so excited it’s all finally coming together.”

‘Nothing even comes close’

An image of the exterior of the vault
A look at the front entrance of the redesigned vault.

Students at OUWB and the Oakland University School of Health Sciences Physical Therapy Program learn body structure and receive a more humanistic education during human anatomy when they have a body donor to study.

Students study the same donor throughout the course of the school year, and often consider donors their first patients.

Stefanie Attardi, Ph.D., assistant professor, Department of Foundational Medical Studies, said “there is no greater gift” a person can make than donating their body for the purpose of medical education. Attardi was among several OUWB faculty who attended the ribbon-cutting.

“There is all this new software and fancy ways to teach anatomy, but nothing even comes close to the real human body…the different pathologies, different body types, and so on,” she said.

To honor the donors and show appreciation for their donation,  a memorial service is hosted by the medical and physical therapy students. In honor of the donors, students write poems, reflections, and dedicate songs.

“Our students recognize that these donors are their first patients, and treat them with great respect and reverence,” said Duane Mezwa, M.D., Stephan Sharf Dean, OUWB, who also thanked Pixley and city officials.

“They understand the significance of the gift they’ve been entrusted with.”

Since welcoming its first class in 2011, OUWB has worked with other schools like University of Toledo to secure body donors. So far, donors have been returned to the organizations OUWB has partnered with, which then take care of the remains.

However, all of that is changing.

That’s because establishing a body donation program for OUWB has long been a “top priority” for Doug Gould, Ph.D., professor and chair, Department of Foundational Medical Studies.

Among other things, Gould said, having its own program offers OUWB a “great opportunity to liaison with the community,” and enables the school to collect the medical history of the donors, which will aid in the overall educational experience for students.

Having such a program also requires a place for interment of ashes once donors are cremated (unless alternate arrangements are made), which is where the Mount Avon mausoleum comes in. 

‘Easy to support’

An image of Vern Pixley speaking
Vern Pixley speaks at the ribbon-cutting on Oct. 28, 2022.

Mount Avon Cemetery was platted in 1826 — the first in Oakland County. In 1979, the Michigan Historical Commission placed the cemetery on the state register of historic sites.

The Receiving Vault was built in the 19th century originally to house bodies in the winter until the ground became unfrozen. Technological advances since then had rendered obsolete the beautifully built and solid structure.

Several years ago — and before he was a member of the Rochester City Council — Gould reached out to Pixley to begin exploring options for a possible final resting place for those who would donate their bodies to OUWB.

Working with several city officials, it was determined the obsolete vault could work. During a regular public meeting on Dec. 13, 2021, Rochester City Council approved the agreement with OUWB to allow the school’s use of the vault.

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“This gem of a cemetery is important to the city of Rochester and we believe in taking care of it,” said Stuart Bikson, mayor, Rochester. “It’s easy to support when we can do improvements like this and work with a longtime business partner like Vern Pixley.”

Pixley, whose ancestors are among the first settlers in the area and some of the oldest in the cemetery, oversaw redesign of the vault that is about 17 feet by 12 feet.

New brass doors (which will generally remain locked) were added along with a polished granite threshold. Inside, new granite shelves were installed — enough to hold up to 5,000 urns. The thick limestone walls and roof have generally withstood the test of time and didn’t require any work.

“I’m excited about having the opportunity to be supportive of OUWB, to continue and enhance the relations with the city, and utilize a very cool structure that exists in the cemetery for such a great purpose,” said Pixley.

Also excited are students like Joseph Solomon, a first-year medical student at OUWB. Solomon spoke at the ribbon-cutting.

“For me, it was important to represent our class and show appreciation to Rochester and the Pixley family to let them know that we really care about honoring the donors who have given themselves to our education and our future careers as physicians,” he said.

Now, said Mezwa, “the real heavy lifting begins as the (body donation) team develops call scripts and engages with the community to register donors for our program.”

For more information about the OUWB Body Donor Program, email [email protected].

Photos by Rob Hall Photography.

To request an interview, visit the OUWB Communications & Marketing webpage.

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