For many in retirement community, ‘going to Memphis’ means returning in an urn
The columbarium at Presbyterian Kirk in the Pines Church is shaded with the pines and oaks plentiful in Hot Springs Village, the gated retirement community more than 185 miles west of Memphis.
Urns from Genesis, the whole-body donation program at Cleveland Street and Union Avenue in Midtown Memphis, by design, fit like a key in a lock in the memory wall.
That simple fact, invisible on the surface, is a metaphor for the power of Genesis in this community of 14,000 mostly affluent retirees living their last decades on a 14-mile stretch of land Weyerhaeuser once owned north of I-30. The village is now dotted with golf courses, man-made lakes and cul de sacs that meander off a main road, gated at both ends.
More than 500 people from the village, more than any other single entity in the country, have donated their bodies to Genesis Whole Body Donation Foundation.
“Bob went over in 2017,” says his widow, Judith Rosenthal. “My sister joined him. She went to Memphis in January.”
“Going to Memphis” for Rosenthal and a handful of women from Kirk who gathered two weeks ago to talk about Genesis, is like going on spiritual retreat where participants can perform a level of good they couldn’t in life.
Survivors talk about it in the active voice.
“My husband is participating now,” said Helen Van Stone. “He died four months ago.”
Carol Clark’s husband was in Memphis eight months before he returned in the well-recognized Genesis urn.
“They did a lot of surgeries on him. Whenever I would call, he had so many things going on,” she said, smiling.
“They would say, ‘Mr. Clark participated in a knee surgery today,’ or ‘Mr. Clark is helping with this today.’ You feel like he is still alive and continuing to do good. It was a comfort,” Clark said, to the point that she started to dread his ashes coming home, the end to the last active link she had with him.
“When they did come, it was comforting to have them and know what he had contributed.”
The women estimate 30% of the Kirk congregation is registered with Genesis.
On Sunday, Sept. 29, like it does every year, Genesis hosted a memorial program at Christ United Methodist Church to honor the more than 900 people whose bodies were given during the past year. More than 500 people attended, many dabbing at tears as images of the departed flashed on a screen in the front.
“Thank you to you and your loved ones,” said Dr. Christopher Ross, associate professor and associate chair of professional education at Cook County Hospital in Chicago. “They are here,” he said, noting that speaking to the survivors at the memorial, after all he and many in the medical community have learned from the Genesis donors, “closes the circle for me.”
No one really remembers how the connection between the village and Genesis began, although Mary Wright, a member of the Kirk, now in a Good Samaritan facility in the village, gets a lot of votes as the person who was the first to register.
When visitors stop to see her in the care facility, the issue comes up in a few minutes.
“I’ve spent the last two decades talking about Genesis. Even when I’m visiting people I don’t know very well, I ask them,” she says, smiling to herself. “If they don’t know, I say, ‘Well, you need to know.’”
Because of Wright, C.J. Jackson, who manages the care facility, signed up. So did her daughter and son-in-law.
“Young people live a fast and furious lifestyle,” she said. “You never know when your life will blink out. My son-in-law was in the military. He’s a little more aware of the need.”
With Jackson’s influence, Bill Durbin, also a Good Samaritan resident, intends to sign up.
“My body will probably be better doing something like that than being put in the ground,” he said.
Among its thousands of donors, the people — living and gone— from the village hold a certain place in the hearts of the Genesis staff in Memphis who answer their calls and make trips to visit when the residents call for plan updates or think they have a new donor pool.
“We know them so well,” says Anne Jones, marketing and communications manager. “Of course, we treat all of the people who are registered with us the same, but they are our sweethearts.
“Sometimes, they just drop in.”
Jackie Morris, head of social service outreach, is something of a folk hero in the village. For nearly 14 years, it’s been her job to explain how Genesis works, answer questions and somehow be a comfort to people as they work out how they feel about dying and what they are going to do about it.
“I make more trips to the village than other places,” she said. “When someone says, ‘Let’s get this Genesis person here,’ that’s me.”
She’s spoken in many church series on dying (common in the village), town hall meetings and service clubs.
The Kiwanis invited her in April.
“Four signed up that day,” said David Knoernschild. “And two more have since.”
“I worked for 25 years in social work,” Morris says. “I think it helps.”
She was at the memorial service Sunday, in a knot of people before and after the service. She is a link for many to the family members now gone, who signed up partly because they felt a bond with her.
“She’s one of my best friends,” Wright said.
“Whenever we call her, she comes to help with questions,” said Rosenthal, who also attended the memorial service Sunday that ended with the release of doves that circled widely over traffic on Poplar Avenue before finally flying off.
Genesis is the literal sinew and tissue arm of the Medical Education & Research Institute, situated in a former post office at 44 S. Cleveland where more than 29,000 doctors, nurses, police and EMTs last year paid MERI to train on procedures, 24/7, to save or improve lives, including testing on new medical devices.
“You think surgeons just step in place and do surgeries,” Jones said, leading a tour of a MERI operating room big enough to train 50-60 surgeons at once.
“In fact, they don’t. They have to learn how,” she said, walking by a table full of endoscopic catheters and leads lined up for a night class that evening. “When someone needs a new knee, they have had an opportunity to train on a cadaver.”
Last year, 29,000 medical people trained at MERI. The bodies are not embalmed because the chemicals change the tissue, distorting the scientific results.
MERI’s code of ethics requires that the bodies be treated reverently, draped, for instance, in the procedures, just as they would be in a hospital operating room.
“The face is covered,” Jones said. “Just the tissue that is needed for the procedure is showing. We treat them like they are living people.”
She’s touched that several clients, “big, national corporations,” pause for a moment of silence or say a few words of gratitude before beginning their work.
“It’s about the generosity of our donors,” she said.
In Hot Springs Village, the reverence is critical. Without it, donor levels would suffer, residents say.
Martha Nielson, a researcher who worked on National Institutes of Health grants and taught in medical school, says she saw too much, including the gallows humor medical students adopted, she suspects out of defense, when they were working on cadavers.
“My husband was so adamant that I was not going to donate my body to a medical school,” she said. “He couldn’t let that happen to me.”
Genesis has had more than the usual impact on her. When she developed lymphoma, organ donor programs dropped her from their registries.
“I went from being a bone-marrow-donor kind of person to now they won’t take anything. No one wants my organs.”
But Genesis will.
It doesn’t take everyone. There are weight restrictions. It will not accept a person with communicable diseases.
“If they signed up and something changes, we need to talk about a Plan B,” Jones said.
For the economically minded, giving to Genesis offers a nice payback. For one thing, it takes care of removing and transporting the body. In six months to a year, when the research is over, it sends the cremated ashes back to the family, by mail, wherever it may be.
If they have no place for them, they are interred in Memphis or Covington, were Genesis has burial sites.
It files and pays for up to six copies of the death certificate. And it provides a research letter, detailing the exact ways the donor contributed to medicine.
“To me, the selling point was to be cremated,” said Rosenthal. “They will come and get the body. It was free. They would send the ashes back when finished. It was clean, simple and very appealing.”
She loves reading how her husband, Bob, contributed to medicine in the months Genesis was able to expand the time he could give.
“I read it every so often,” she said, “and our children have copies too.”
The letter describes 19 surgeries and procedures on Bob Rosenthal. It is three pages long.
Many people in the village carry Genesis cards in their wallets, which identify them as donors and list the phone number to call at death.
“When it actually happened, I just knew in my heart that I had done the right thing,” Clark said. “It was so much easier to plan the memorial service, pick out the music and talk about memories than dealing with a visitation and all that.”
Most everyone is retirement age in Hot Springs Village, which tends to focus conversations a certain way, she says.
“We’re all going in the same direction. Maybe we didn’t want to talk about it when we first came, but now we do, if we can have a part in the planning.”
This is also a generation that has witnessed huge breakthroughs in medical science, including the first coronary bypass surgery in the 1960s, organ transplants and giant leaps in cancer research.
“We are at an age where we are benefiting from new technology and medical advancements. Think about all the things that were impossible when we were young. These people had to learn this somewhere,” said Jean Fisher.
“When I die, I’m going to Memphis.”
When they read of medical discoveries, Hot Springs Village residents know it’s possible their loved one, or the husband or wife of a friend, could have been involved.
The Rev. Bill Bailey, minster at the 330-member Kirk, agrees that Genesis is part of the giving fabric of the congregation, noting that its brochures are in the church’s welcome area, but he points to other factors, too.
“We live in a mobile culture. No one is back in the little town in Indiana where you came from,” he said. “Your kids are no longer there.”
The restlessness makes choosing a final burial place a bit of a conundrum.
“I’m one of a handful of people in the village who are from Arkansas. Way back in the ’60s, my mother purchased seven plots, one for Dad, her and the five children in our hometown of Conway, Arkansas. None of us are going back there. None of us have any connection with Conway.”
Because retirees move to the village from across the nation, he says, they would have to think about having bodies shipped home to Chicago or Pennsylvania or wherever.
“It’s expensive to ship a body to Chicago,” he said.
As people have grown more accustomed to cremation, it’s easier to make the decision to donate, he says.
Genesis started in the late ’90s, several years after MERI opened. In the beginning, it was a hard sell getting people in the South to consider cremation, Jones said.
“From what they tell me, they had easier time presenting the information to people out of the South. Donations were coming from other places first. Now, people are real interested in green burials and a way to give back.
“When in our lives do we get the chance to impact medical science? Not often.”
Bailey, who’s buried probably hundreds, has his own barometer of when cremation started to be OK and where.
“I served in Richmond, Kentucky, from 1996-2006. I’d say nine out of 10 of the services were funerals, with bodies and coffins,” he said.
“I moved to Hot Springs Village in 2006. I would say 98 out of 100 are memorial services. I can count on one hand the number of funerals we’ve had.
“We’ve had a number of folks that have participated in the Genesis program. But a lot of people choose to be cremated in Hot Springs and have their ashes spread somewhere.”
Bailey doesn’t preach the value of giving one’s body to science (“Hell, no,” he said). But he’s signed up with Genesis.
It has donor arrangements in 18 states, which in the end, Jones says, is about logistics.
For that reason, the states Genesis works form a bulky swath around Tennessee.
Genesis contracts with a network mortuary to pick up the bodies. Cremations are done through Affordable Mortuary and Cremations. It has a compliance officer who inspects the cremation process. All tissues are tracked with GPS.
“We know what temperature the body is being held at and where in the world it is,” Jones said.
The village is not an everyday Arkansas community. It’s wealthier and older and has few long-term ties to Arkansas, which means the residents’ children usually live somewhere else.
“The people in the village have taken care of their estates,” Jackson said. “They have trusts and don’t want to saddle their children with the financial arrangements. And they don’t want to make them do more than they have to. It’s a hard time anyway.”
Still, discussions can be tricky about end-of-life matters.
Clark’s adult children would cover their ears when she and their father tried to bring up the subject.
David Knoernschild signed up with Genesis; his wife, Christina, has not, although she plans to be cremated.
She wonders if all of her husband will come back in the ashes or if parts will be missing.
“Does it matter?” he asks.
“It does to me,” she said.
Bill Herzog, 77, signed up after hearing about Genesis at the Kiwanis Club.
“I went up home and read about it on their website. Then I printed out the forms and signed up,” he said.
“I guess it’s in your heart,” he said. “I can cry at the drop of a hat. Maybe it’s in my constitution to care.”
There will be no memorial service when he dies, partly because he’s been to so many memorial services and left with a vague sense that he didn’t get to say goodbye.
“My mother died at 97. Knock on wood, I am going to have a celebration of life party when I’m 90,” he says with a grin.
“That’s the plan. If I get an illness sooner, I’ll have it sooner.”