A Matter of Taste: The Complilation of In Memoriam
Eddie Small is the editor of the literary anthology ‘In Memoriam’, a book which celebrates the life of those who have given their body to science. He gives ShortbreadStories an insight as to how he approached such a delicate subject.
Publishing an anthology about death, and about the donation of bodies to science, brings some particular problems. Matters of taste and decorum need to be balanced against the need to make the content entertaining and interesting to readers, and so a plan of action has to be well thought through.
The original idea probably had two quite separate impetuses; the first, a Discovery Day Lecture on the imperative of body donation for the training of students, and the second, a discussion between Anna Day (Director of Dundee University Press) and Professor Kirsty Gunn (Chair of Creative Writing at the University) on the desire to pay tribute to donors after the annual Service of Thanksgiving in the University of Dundee Chaplaincy.
The idea of inviting professional writers to submit was neither brainstorming nor particularly difficult to arrange. Cambridge Emeritus Professor, John Carey, agreed to write a piece on John Donne; Scottish novelist Alan Warner, a particular friend to the University, readily agreed to write a bespoke piece, and Costa Prize winner, Christopher Reid, whose wife had donated her own body to science, submitted a specially-written poetic gem. Professor Aidan Day, University lecturer and recognised authority on the work of Tennyson, also submitted a piece which analysed one of Tennyson’s most famous works, the name of which, In Memoriam, doubled as the title for our own publication.
It was not difficult, either, to find creative writing students, past and present, and also medical students, talented enough to supply excellent pieces of apposite prose and poetry. It was additionally poignant, however, that the medical students who contributed had had the opportunity to work with the donated bodies to which their submissions allude. The real difficulty came in the knowledge that the single thing which would set this anthology apart would be the life-stories of some of the people who had donated their bodies.
Getting these life-stories meant speaking to relatives who might be amenable to the idea. Getting a list of potentially amenable sets of relatives meant asking the co-operation of University bequeathal secretary, Vivienne McGuire, and her head of operations in the Department of Anatomy, Professor Sue Black. Both of these ladies were supportive and readily granted their help, but only if it met with the agreement of HM Inspector of Anatomy for Scotland, Professor Robert Wood.
I duly contacted Professor Wood and visited him at his Abernethy home. The decision to allow the approach to donors’ relatives was not one to be taken lightly. Although the supply of bodies almost always falls short of demand, particularly since the 2006 Anatomy Act which has meant a great increase in body parts required, overtly advertising for people to consider donation has always been considered indecorous and distasteful.
Professor Wood eventually agreed to our approaching relatives, providing the relevant civil servants at St Andrews House in Edinburgh gave their permission. The subsequent trip to Edinburgh resulted in the hoped-for green light to our project. Vivienne McGuire quickly supplied the aforementioned list and I was then tasked to make the initial contact with the relatives.
Vivienne contacted selected families of, and, after gaining their acceptance by telephone, I wrote drafts from the information they each gave me. A couple of the families opted not to proceed, and this brought home just how sensitive an area we were putting ourselves into. Three families agreed to proceed with the life-stories of their loved ones, and I visited all three on more than one occasion in order to complete a story for each which satisfied their memories, their sensibilities and their concerns.
We also made contact with a man who had arranged to donate his body, but who was very much still alive. His was a different life-stor,y but with all the interest and fascination of the other, and ultimately we were graced with four stories about very disparate characters each of whom had a different reason for donating. The one area of commonality was the selflessness of each of them.
To the mix of submitted pieces and life-stories, we added a piece about the bequeathal secretary in Dundee, and through her story we laid out the prescribed method of body donation for any who might be minded to take this option. The content of the anthology was aptly completed by a lovely and poignant submission from Fiona Douglas, the Chaplain at the University of Dundee. Once Kirsty Gunn had added her foreword we had a body of work ready for design, artwork, printing and publishing.
Professor Calum Colvin was approached and commissioned to provide the artwork. Calum had only just finished his fascinating portrait of the university’s immediate past-principal and vice-chancellor, Sir Alan Langlands, and he eagerly embraced the challenge of providing art for such an intriguing publication. Calum’s finished artwork brings a wonderful sense of narrative to In Memoriam, and the way he has included pictures from the lives of donors in the detail is both very warming and personal.
With the text and the artwork agreed upon, the task of designing the book, including layout and font, was tasked to Chris Collins, although he was always approachable and happy to consider the views of others in the project.
The launch of In Memoriam takes place on Saturday 18th February at 6 pm in the Dalhousie Building. It has been included in the Saturday Evening Lecture Series at the University, a series which has run, uninterrupted, for a record eighty-eight years. Professors Kirsty Gunn, Sue Black and Calum Colvin will share the platform, and the medical students included in the book will read their pieces on the evening. In the audience will be relatives of those whose wonderful life-stories appear in the book, and they will have come from Luxemburg and from Kirkcaldy, from Crieff and St Andrews. Their reason for being present will echo the reason for the making of In Memoriam.
This post is in connection with our Industry Insider series.