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Donating Your Body To Science

In the words of Peter Marshall- “the measure of life is not its duration but its donation.” It appears that more and more people are taking Peter Marshall to heart given that the number of people doing it has tripled over recent years. Yes, we’re talking about body donation after death, something that more and more people are considering these days.

Death comes to all of us, for some sooner than others and there’s no exception to the rule. While we have no control over the when and the how, we do have control over our body after our deaths.

From the more traditional way of embalming and burial or a cremation to the more modern mushroom death suit there are quite a few options out there.

But donating your body is a more meaningful outcome to an otherwise inevitable demise. It is a gift that everyone can give- one which has no cost but is tremendously powerful.

What Is Body Donation?

Body donation allows the donor (posthumously of course), and their families, the opportunity to save the life of another by making a selfless contribution. Most donors themselves were recipients of an organ donation in their lives. As a means of giving back and continuing the chain of generosity, they opt to donate parts or even their whole body to others.

Donating your body to science is very different from being an organ donor. Whether it’s just your brain or tissue or even your entire body, donating it to a medical school or to a research center is an invaluable gift.

It becomes an important resource for research or for training other healthcare professionals and has proven to be an invaluable donation in the medical field.

It is also a slightly complicated process since there is no governing body or network that oversees the process of matching bodies with medical schools or research programs, unlike organ donors who are part of the United Network for Organ Sharing. Before we talk about “the how” in more detail, understand the why.

Why Donate Your Body To Science?

Whatever your reason or purpose for donating your body, it can never be wrong. The benefits of donating body to science can really be life-changing for everyone in the following ways:

Benefits Medical Research

Donating your body to science not only benefits doctors and scientists, but patients as well. Scientists can use your body to study and get an understanding of diseases.

There is a lot of dedicated research to find a cure for cancer, HIV, Alzheimer’s etc and your body can help this research to find a cure.

Researchers are also using donated bodies to expand research on hip and knee replacements and back surgery. Your body can be part of something great and make a positive contribution to society.

Helps With Training

Medical students and doctors can use your body to improve their surgical skills. A dead body, medically referred to as a cadaver is the perfect model for doctors and surgeons to perform surgical training because cadavers are the most accurate representation of human anatomy.

Having well-trained medical students who can handle the knife means that we can produce future doctors who are more competent, and in return, the future would have more patients being saved. 

Aside from surgery, doctors can also up-skill their capabilities in the different methodologies of inserting medical devices. Even EMTs and paramedics will benefit from your selfless donation as they can practice in opening the airways and other lifesaving techniques.

While this is overseen as an advantage and not a high priority for some families, families with members working in the medical field find this the main purpose for body donation. Your body would be a blessing in disguise in furthering medical development.

Saves On Funeral Costs

Unfortunately, dying is expensive. The cost of funerals and cremations can be stressful financially. When you decide to donate your body to science after your death, your family won't need to worry about funeral expenses because most donor programs cover the expense. 

Your family won’t need to pay a single cent because from the transportation of your remains to the medical institution, to the cremation, and death certificate, the donor program will take care of it all.

Lessens Your Carbon Footprint

The impact of death on the environment is alarming. In cases of traditional burials, the use of invasive and obstructive products for embalming, lacquered caskets, heavily manicured funeral sites, and tombstones take its toll on the planet.

About 800,000 gallons of formaldehyde-based embalming liquid are buried in U.S. cemeteries, which are harmful to the soil and cause pollution. Although donating your body to science will eventually lead to cremation, it is a form of disposition with the least impact on our environment.

Reduces Animal Testing

Donating your body to science not only benefits the human species, but animals will also be thankful to you. You just helped in reducing more animals from being lab rats and lab guinea pigs. Medical experiments can be done realistically instead.

Qualifications & Restrictions For Donating Your Body To Science

Donating body after death is an option open to almost everyone. Yes, there are certain qualifications and a few restrictions, but overall, 90% of prospective donors get approved. The primary criteria for donating a body to science are: you have to be dead to become a medical donor, and you have to consent to donate your body.

Here is an overview of the factors that body donation organizations look into when approving or declining your application.

Health

Perfect health is not necessary to be a body donor. Even if you have diabetes, or heart disease, these illnesses don't rule you out because the very ill body donors prove valuable for programs studying a specific medical condition. Even if you are an amputee, you can still donate your body.

Age

Age is no criteria either when it comes to being a body donor. Anyone from infants to senior citizens are eligible to donate organs, tissues or their entire body. There is no upper age limit, advanced age won't rule you out at all.

Illness

Certain contagious diseases like AIDS or HIV, Hepatitis B, Hepatitis C, and Prion diseases. If you have any communicable disease, you will become ineligible. Extreme obesity, dying of an aortic aneurysm, having bed sores at the time of your death, and severe trauma may also be factors that can cause your donation to be declined.

Manner Of Death

Another reason why your body will be disqualified is if the manner of your death is deemed abnormal. This criterion is variable and has room for exceptions, for example, you die in a severe car crash or from an illness that wastes away your muscles or organs. 

Initially, you would be rejected, especially if there is little left of you to donate. But there are also researchers who are dedicated to certain fields like how the impact of a car crash can damage the human body. In such cases you become the perfect representation for this study. There would always be someone who would be interested in studying your body. If your body was mutilated or decomposition has set in, you may also be declined.

Required Autopsy

Even if the manner of your death is normal, but an autopsy or post-mortem is needed to be performed, then there is a good chance that your body donation will be rejected.

No Room Vacancies

This is a little ironic given the legacy you plan on leaving behind. Still, you can also be declined if the relevant medical organization has no room for more bodies or no one is available to study it. This can happen during the holidays or at the end of the year.

Other Reasons

Although these cases are sporadic, another reason why your request to be a body donor will be declined is when your immediate family member refuses to release your body upon death. Even if you gave a written consent, if your next of kin is adamant, the institution would let you go.

Should your body donation be declined for these reasons, the organization will have zero responsibility for your body's disposal. The funeral or cremation costs would fall either on your estate or family.

What Does It Cost To Donate Your Body To Science?

Financially, donating your body to science will incur you no cost. You and your family will not be shelling out a single dollar for your generosity to help science achieve new levels of understanding.

The advantage of zero expenditure for you and your bereaved, equals a different set of drawbacks. It is really not you but your family who would pay for the emotional cost of donating a body to science.

Time is critical when you are donating your body. Usually, your family won’t have time to arrange a memorial for you. If they do, it will be without your physical body. Some families and loved ones find this extremely difficult because holding a funeral is usually a step in the healing process of their loss.

Foregoing a funeral can be overwhelming to loved ones as they deal not only with the grief of your parting but also the distress that comes from not having the usual closure that is required to start moving on.

Additionally, your family will have to go through an extended waiting period before the healing and closure can finally set in. Although most medical schools or organizations have a memorial service to pay gratitude and respect to the bodies they used during the last semester, this won't happen until several weeks and months after your death.

From there, the cremation process will commence, and your family can finally have a physical and tangible component of you – your ashes. This usually sets the reality that you are gone and triggers the healing process.

You will also have to be prepared and accept that your body will be embalmed for a long time. Your body needs to be preserved until the next semester. You will be kept in a fridge for weeks or months until you are ready to serve your purpose. You will have strangers touching and learning about your anatomy.

These are a few of the disadvantages of donating your body to science. It will also be smart and practical to prepare financially still and have an alternative plan should your donation be rejected. You don’t want to place your family in a tight spot by having to shoulder the expenses for your memorial and burial.

Do You Get Money For Donating Your Body To Science?

Monetary returns or compensation is not part of a medical donation, and that is one of the rules for donating your body to science. Getting money in exchange for your body – dead or alive is wrong. You, or your family will not receive any money in return for your valuable contribution.

In place of money, what you get is the self-gratifying feeling that even in death, you could contribute positively to the medical field of research. With your body, you can help find new methods of saving lives and provide a new understanding of how the human body works. With your donation, you make doctors and surgeons more competent in their medical work, and you can contribute in a small way to change the history of medicine.

Getting money in exchange for this should not be a reason for you to consider donating your body to science at all. What you receive is a legacy of generosity in return for your contribution to progress or advances in medical science.

What Is The Process Of Donating Your Body To Science?

A whole body donation process is a little more complicated and to a large extent also depends on where you live and where you want to end up. States like Florida, Texas, Maryland and Illinois have anatomical boards that govern body donation but most other states don’t. In most cases potential donors don’t get to decide who gets their body.

Deciding to become a medical body donor takes a lot of thought. You are aware of what will happen to you once your body is donated to science, and if you are willing to have that done to your body and want to have a purpose even after death, you can start your process of donating your body to science.

1. Get In Touch With Medical Organization Or University

Once you’re absolute with your choice, you have to get in touch with a medical organization or university. Whether it's a teaching hospital or university or a specific organization such as Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, you need to contact them initially to start the process.

2. Fill Out The Consent Form

You can provide written consent or a declaration of your intent. The document should clearly specify that after your death, it is your wish for your body to be donated to medical science. This document can be handwritten or typed. You must also affix your signature and the date of your declaration.

This handwritten consent will then be stored and safeguarded by the institute. It should also be witnessed. Many medical schools have their own body donation program and hence their own donor form like this one here.

 Note that consent cannot be provided by anybody else after your death. A copy of your consent will be given to your family doctor, and you get to keep one too.

3. A Representative Coordinates With The Family

Once the organization is notified or informed of your death or its impending approach, a representative will coordinate with your immediate family to identify your eligibility shortly before your death or soon after it and authorization forms to be completed for the release.

4. The Body Is Transported To The Organization

Once the documentation is complete, the transportation of your cadaver will be arranged. Your body will not be released to your family after your death. Usually, if death happens in the hospital, your body will go straight to the medical organization.

Once your body is received by a university or a medical research facility, your organs and tissues will be recovered, harvested, and given to the research teams to expand their exploration.

How Do You Sign Up To Donate Your Body To Science?

Once you are up 100% confident in your decision, you can simply go to a body donation program locally in your city or within your state. Most of these organizations are accessible online with all basic information and eligibility posted. For starters, you can initiate the communication by emailing them your intention.

From there, discussions can be made until a meeting can be set up. With almost everything being done and accomplished online, registering to donate your body to science is an easy and seamless process.

Many families also connect with body brokers or accredited institutions providing such services through their local crematorium or funeral homes. However this is still a grey area, largely unregulated and hence you will need to proceed with great caution when considering donating a loved one’s body to body brokers.

However, body donor guidelines and requirements in every state, medical school, body donor program and body donor organization is different. It is therefore recommended that you do a thorough research and understand the salient features of each before you make a decision.

Are There Different Places To Donate Your Body To?

In most US states, bodies donated to science usually go to three different places: a school or university, hospitals, or private institutions. 

Medical Universities

Medical students will be using your body to learn more about human anatomy. Your body will be used in pursuit of knowledge and skill.

Hospitals

Doctors and surgeons can test newer methods and techniques that can help them improve their skills and give top medical care to patients.

Private Research Institutes

These are privately owned facilities that are dedicated to research on a certain cause like finding a cure for cancer or Hepatitis etc.

Can You Donate Your Organs & Your Body To Different Organizations?

Many donors sign up either to donate their organs after death or their whole bodies to science. For those looking to split their organ and body donation to different organizations there are some things to keep in mind.

  • You can do both except if the medical organization requires a whole body. Some medical institutions will allow you to have your organs removed. You can help people on the waiting transplant list and have your tissues removed for research purposes.
  • It all depends on the institution that you get in touch with. If you are registered as an organ donor, but also wish to donate your body to science upon your death, the priority will be given to the organ or tissue association.
  • Your body can still be accepted after having your organs or tissues harvested, depending on the policies of the institution you signed up with. Some might not accept your body if some or all of your organs have been donated, while other facilities may allow you to donate your eyes or certain specific organs. 
  • Again, everything is determined by the medical facility, research organization, or school you will coordinate with. Policies vary from state to state and institution to institution, and this will be discussed with you before you sign up to be a body donor. 
  • Remember that donating a part of your body or your whole body to extend life and expand the medical field is already a valuable gift and would be appreciated and treasured by whoever received it.

What Happens To Your Remains Afterwards?

After your scientific purpose has been served, your family can coordinate with the donor program regarding your cremains. Usually, they will be held fully accountable for handling the eventual cremation of your remains.

Your family will be provided with options. The medical school can have your remains cremated and the ashes returned to your family.

They can provide you with a long overdue but proper memorial. There are also instances when the family can ask for the remains to be scattered in the sea.

It really depends on what arrangements you agreed on with your family when you were still alive. Every donor program will try their level best to fulfill your wishes.

Talking With Your Family About Your Donation Wishes

Communicating with your family about your thoughts of donating your body to science is important. It might just be an idea or a possibility then, but the sooner you involve your loved ones in your plans, the better. After all, they are the ones who'd be left behind to deal with the authorization, loss, grief and moving on.

Talking about subjects like this is not really pleasant and is uncomfortable. It is up to you to bridge the gap to make this idea become a family decision.   You can make this a seamless experience for everyone, and here are a few guidelines that you can consider and adapt.

Complete The Paperwork

You have to be ready with your completed and duly signed documentation. If possible, have this included in your will. Since reading your last will happens days after your burial and is already too late, provide a copy of your handwritten consent for body donation to your immediate family. This will ensure that the handover will be hassle-free and continuous.

Share What Inspired You

You might have your own reasons for wanting to share your body to science after your death. Your family might have seen this coming but for some it can also be a real shock, and they might convince you not to pursue it. Tell them your true reason.

Share with them your story that, as a teacher, you don't want to stop your lifelong passion of teaching even after death. Or, as a professional working in the hospital, you feel like you are helping the medical field.

It may be that you want to further Alzheimer's research, because  your mother or a beloved family member was a victim of this debilitating disease. Whatever the reason for your decision, it is worth letting your family know about it too. 

You might also be driven out of a sense of nobility and selflessness, or just downright practicality that your funeral costs would be too much for your family and money spent for a casket would be spent on food and education. Or life was very hard for you with no other family left. In death, you'd like to be valued and treated with respect and gratitude.

Respect Their Feelings

Regardless of whether they are aware of your plan, hearing it expressed might still come as a shock to them. Do not expect your family to outright accept the idea. Be prepared for them to oppose it or find ways to talk you out of it but hear their side of why you should not donate your body to science.

Hear them out and respect their reaction - whether shock, fear, and even anger. Be thankful for their support and understanding and give each other some time for your decision to sink in. You cannot automatically ask for their understanding because your family would also have to still think about your decision. Give them time to do their own research until they come to terms with what you've decided on.

Educate Them On The Process

Especially for traditional families, donating your body to science after death is foreign. With more individuals opting to do this instead of a traditional burial, you have to be proactive in educating your family about the practicality of your decision and how it works for the larger good.

Most likely, their hesitation may stem from thinking of your body being handled inappropriately, without dignity or perhaps from a feeling of not giving you a more appropriate send-off.

Ease their worries by sharing the process and even inviting them to go with you when you visit and talk with the representative of the medical institution or university. You have to let them understand that they have a critical role in making this body donation work.

The organization you have donated your body to does not keep tabs on all their donors. Notifying  them about your passing would fall to your family and as such they have an important role to fulfill.

What If Family Members Want A Memorial But Won't Have A Body?

Like most families, yours would also want to provide you with a memorial. This is how traditional funerals work, and in your last days physically here on earth, friends and loved ones would like to celebrate your life and pay their respects.

There are many ways that families can choose to honor the deceased even without having the body intact. From personal services to unique memorials like cremation jewelry, the options are many and customizable to the life of their loved one.

A service can still be held even if you have decided to donate your body. There are various ways of remembrance that your family can choose and they do not need a body to do so.

They can celebrate your life with close family and friends, sharing anecdotes and things about you that reveal facets of your character and personality and will keep your memory alive. They can also use a significant symbol that would be apt in the absence of a body, like a portrait for example.

After you have made your selfless contribution to science, your body will be cremated, and your ashes returned to your family. Once your family receives your cremains, another service can be done similar to a post-memorial, but this time, with your ashes present. Due to the long waiting period, as you serve your purpose in the medical field, this post-service would have to be done months after your actual passing.

Families may also opt for cremation jewelry in remembrance of their loved ones.  Cremation jewelry keepsakes have been getting very popular in recent times.

Usually, in the form of a necklace, the pendant holds a little amount of your ash. Turning ashes into jewelry is an elegant but poignant way of remembrance and something your loved ones can wear daily and close to their hearts.

Cremation jewelry gives the entire family a way to hold close a memory of their loved one and the wide variety of types and styles means that each family member can individualize their purchase. Not just pendants and necklaces to choose from but there are also cremation rings and cremation bracelets that can be included in your choices.

Another option that loved ones can consider would be to have a photo engraved jewelry or a photo memorial pendant and keychain of their favorite photo of you. It can also be adorned with colored glass, crystals, cubic zirconia, and synthetic stones. These photo engraved jewelry can also have some text engraved on it for a more personalized look.

Body Donation To Science Frequently Asked Questions

This can be an enormous choice for you. Yes, you need time, as soon as you've decided, you get the documentation and your family ready. Nobody, after all, knows when death is coming.

To help you build your confidence and have 100% conviction that this is what you want after your passing, here are the common hesitations and inquiries that can make your decision easier and stronger.

Can I donate to my Alma Mater or to a specific facility that has meaning to me? 1

Yes, you can. If your Alma Mater has a program that accepts medical donations, you can coordinate with them about your request and determine their specific policies and requirements.

It is also not limited to your school choice because you can donate to a certain geographic area, medical school, or university. You can also support an institution that supports a cause like you do, like Alzheimer's, cancer, or depression.  At this point, it is best to check your state and city's regulations about where you can donate and which facilities can best meet your personal expectations and needs.

May I donate someone else's body like my spouse, parent, or children?

Signing up and registering to be a body donor needs to be done by the person who wants their body to be donated after death. This process should be done while he or she is still alive. However, if there was the intent, but no paperwork was done, the spouse or nearest kin may donate.

What’s the difference between organ donation and whole body donation?

Organ donation is primary for transplants to extend another person's life, while whole-body donations to science also include removing organs and tissues for medical research.

There are about 125,000 Americans who are waiting for an organ transplant. From varying ages, 22 die daily because their time waiting for hearts, kidneys, lungs, and small intestines has run out. They've expired, and they're no closer to reaching the top 10 priority list because everyone is a priority. Organs from a single body cumulatively can save a total of eight lives, and donating tissue like corneas, heart valves, and tendons can help another 50 people.

The demand for finding new procedures and drilling down on the cause of diseases, and finding medications for it is also urgent. Whole-body donations can help in this field of science. Your hands could bring about a breakthrough tendon repair methodology.

Is it better if I Donate Just My Organs or My Whole Body?

Both are selfless acts, and a kidney or liver is as valuable as your whole body. It is a matter of preference and reason. The urgent need for organs to be harvested is the same as the need for bodies to pave the way for research and development.

This is your personal choice, and either or, it lets you continue to do good even after you've passed on.

What if I die outside my home state? Can my donation still be accepted?

If this is the case, unfortunately, your donation would be declined. The next course of action is for your immediate family to explore the possibility of still proceeding with donating your body but to the nearest body donor program where you died.

Will the body donor program find out the cause of my death?

No, the body donor program does not perform autopsies to identify the reason for your death. They don't do reports either regarding post-mortem procedures. At the time of your passing, your attending physician at the hospital will sign your death certificate, and the cause of death should already be clearly stated in that document.

I changed my mind. Can I retract my donation?

Yes, you can as long as you're still alive to do it. Tell the institution you contacted that you will not donate your body to science after your death.

Is my donation legally binding, or can my family not proceed with it after I die?

Donating your body to science is executed by your handwritten consent and will, which is legally binding. At the time of your death, your immediate family has other plans for you and they decide to go against your wishes, then the body donor organization will honor and respect your family's decision.

Aside from being an organ donor or a body donor, do I have alternative donation options?

Yes, there are other viable choices, especially if you are leaning against the extraordinary and intend to help after your death. Explore the option of being a crash-test dummy, then get in touch with the biomedical engineering department of Wayne State University. They prefer to use cadavers for auto-safety and create that perfect helmet design for NFL players to prevent having a concussion.

You can also consider donating your skeleton to the forensics experts at the University of New Mexico’s Maxwell Museum of Anthropology’s Laboratory of Human Osteology. Here, the body's decomposition is the primary focus, and law enforcement officials and forensic anthropologists study the skeleton to understand and interpret the time of death.

Donating Your Body To Science Can Be A Life Changing Decision

Donating your body to science is a decision of a lifetime. Whatever inspires you to reach this decision, your generous gift can help change lives.

Your family plays an important role in this process. Getting them involved and communicating with them about your plans is crucial. You might not have a timely funeral, which can be hard for your bereaved loved ones, but there are modern ways of remembrance from a personal service with family and friends to small remembrances like cremation jewelry.

This decision also has its disadvantages, but overall, the good it does outweighs the cons. Don’t allow death to be the end of you being a driver for change and improvement. You can do much more even if you are just a body without a soul.

Helpful reading:

Will my friend's family share the ashes with me?
10 Ways to Support a Family Member or Friend After They’ve Suffered a Loss
What To Do When A Parent Dies

December 29, 2020 by Jeri K. Augustus