My Dead Body on Channel 4 review: dissection documentary is groundbreaking and poignant

Death is not an easy subject of discussion for most of us. Few people plan for what happens afterwards; we’re too busy avoiding talking about it. Even fewer think about how their body, the vessel that carries us through life, could help medical science once we’ve disembarked for good. For Toni Crews, a single mother of two children who died of cancer in 2020 aged just 30, though, death was an opportunity to save lives.

On Monday night, the British public will watch her brain being examined by curious medical students on Channel 4’s My Dead Body: the first time that a named British person has had their remains publicly dissected on TV.

My Dead Body follows her journey to the end, and her body’s journey beyond it. It succeeds in treading a fine line between the human and the scientific. Crews’s cancer came suddenly, and spread with devastating efficiency. A swelling around her eye, spotted during a visit to the opticians in 2016, turned out to be adenocarcinoma - a “one in a million cancer” around her tear gland that led to her eye being removed. By the time of her death, scans revealed hundreds of tumours dotted throughout her body. Little could have been done to stop the spread, but a clinical trial which may have helped her survive longer was cancelled in 2020, due to the Covid pandemic.

The documentary, which is narrated using Crews’s own words, from diary entries, social media posts and personal messages, brilliantly captures the agony of cancer: the anxious wait for diagnosis, the uncertainty of knowing what to tell children, and the attempt to come to terms with the harshness of mortality.

Before her death, Crews had long been mulling the decision to offer her body to trainee medics, according to her parents Jo and Jason. “These are things no single mum should ever have to think about,” Crews says. “But I’m eager to share my story in hope that my memory will be kept alive and help others in the future”.

Jason Crews, Toni's father, and Jo Crews, Toni’s mother at home (Channel4)
Jason Crews, Toni's father, and Jo Crews, Toni’s mother at home (Channel4)

Let’s not forget though, that this is the dissection of a human body, on TV. The show doesn’t focus too heavily on the procedure itself, though the process is fascinating to watch. The dissection of Crews’s body is led by Professor Claire Smith, head of anatomy at Brighton and Sussex Medical School. She is an engaging presence on screen, showing a genuine passion for Crews’s life, and anxious to ensure that Jo and Jason understand the scientific value of the operation.

As Smith cradles Jo’s brain tissue, a group of medical students look on apprehensively. One of them is reassured by a senior doctor that it’s OK, she can actually touch the brain itself. “It is what Toni herself would have wanted,” they are told.

Doctors and students poke and prod Crews’s body throughout but there is never a sense that she is merely a “donor”. Scenes of the operation are blended with interviews with Crews’s friends and family, ensuring the show does not veer too heavily into the territory of a medical training programme. Still, squeamish viewers might find this a difficult watch.

When Crews’s organs are sent back to her family, she describes her as having “left [our] care” - showing just how deep the emotional bond is between doctor and patient, even after death. In an affecting moment, a minute’s silence is held as her body is carried out of the hospital for the final time.

Crews’s own voice, recreated for the documentary using AI technology, is a ghostly presence throughout the film. Her words help to illustrate the richness of her life, interspersed with footage of her blowing bubbles in her family garden as a child, and eating ice-cream with a close friend.

The show’s one weakness is its reluctance to examine Crews’s journey within the wider context of those who donate their bodies to medical science. It would have been useful to know just how much the NHS could benefit from more people taking the brave decision that Crews did, and why the public dissection itself was such a significant moment for the health service.

Crews’s commitment to leaving a “legacy” and “keeping her memory alive” is stressed throughout, which ends by announcing that she has helped to teach 800 doctors to date. Over the next five years, she will teach 10,000 more. But as groundbreaking as her decision may be to medics, her final message to her two children is poignantly simple.

“There will be good days and bad days. Be kind and happy and gentle. Mummy will always love you.”

My Dead Body will air on Channel 4 on Monday December 5, at 10pm