In late August, medical students at the University of Arizona College of Medicine – Tucson took part in a traditional Native American blessing ceremony, followed by a tree planting to honor the memory of those who have passed away and donated their bodies to science. The ceremony was led by Carlos Gonzales, MD, assistant dean of curricular affairs, associate professor of family and community medicine, and advisor for Traditional Indian and Western Medicine Collaboration.
The annual event, known as the Tree Blessing Ceremony, took place in the Dr. Norman Koelling Willed Body Memorial Garden. The garden was created to “honor and esteem those who have supported science, medicine and education through the ultimate contribution of their body.” Medical students learn the basics of human anatomy through the College of Medicine – Tucson Willed Body Program, which allows individuals to donate their bodies after death so that students may gain valuable hands-on medical training.
Dr. Gonzales started the ceremony in 2007. “Two American Indian students asked me to perform a blessing ceremony before they worked on their cadaver. Other students heard of the ceremony, and they asked for a blessing for themselves, so I started performing the ceremony for the whole class using a prayer to the Seven Sacred Directions. This blessing involves recognizing the four cardinal points, and above us (father sky), below us (mother Earth) and the center (the creator). Each direction has certain energies associated with it. I therefore ask those energies to come into the circle and bless the students with those energies.”
“I also perform a smudging ceremony, where I bless each individual student with the smoke of the sacred cleansing and blessing herbs, which I burn in the abalone shell. The herbs are white sage, soft sage, sweetgrass, creosote leaves, copal, cedar and wild tobacco,” explained Dr. Gonzales.
After the Blessing Ceremony, participants take part in planting the tree, each taking a turn shoveling dirt into the hole. Ashes from the herbs burned in the smudging ceremony are mixed in with the dirt during the planting of the tree.