What you need to know before donating your body to science


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It’s never easy to think about death, but when that time comes, you should have a plan in place. Donating your body to science is a generous — and unfortunately, little-understood — option.  Know the facts so you can decide whether or not this is the best choice for you. 


First things first

If you know you want to give a gift to others upon death, first consider becoming an organ donor. While donating your body to science can contribute to scientific advancements, donating an organ can save lives. You can sometimes be both — and there’s no harm in registering for both — but depending on cause of death and what organs are donated, it’s not always possible for your body to be studied for scientific purposes following organ donation.


The donation process

Those interested in donating their bodies to science should search online for local programs and institutions. The process often differs state by state, and institutions use the donations for different purposes. Popular Science recommends choosing a 501(c) program — 501(c) is the code for nonprofits — to ensure you’re registering with a legitimate one.

When you die, a family member or caregiver must contact the donor program immediately, as many institutions will not accept bodies 12 to 24 hours after the time of death. Your family will not receive any money in exchange for the donation — “buying” bodies is illegal in the United States; go figure. If you pass away within a certain distance of the institution, your family won’t have to pay for much, if anything; the institution usually covers the cost of transport and cremation.

If you choose to donate your body to a medical institution, your body will most likely be cremated after being studied. Some offer families the option of accepting the cremated remains; others don’t. 

Sharing your choice with your family might be difficult — who really wants to think about med students dissecting a loved one’s body? — but it’s absolutely necessary, and we’ll tell you why: You don’t get the final say regarding where your body goes when you die, even if you’ve filled out all the forms and registered with specific programs. When your day comes, one person gets to make that final decision: your legal next-of-kin, which may be your spouse, children, parents, etc. They need to know that this is what you want. It’s also important to know that you can always change your mind.


Reasons your body may not be accepted

Not everyone can give their body to science. Requirements and restrictions vary among programs, but most institutions will not accept donations from people who suffered from infectious diseases, such as hepatitis, HIV, AIDS, Staph and tuberculosis. Widespread cancer can also be an issue. 

You’ll need to be 18 years or older, and you might not be a candidate if you have a history of illegal drug use, served time in prison or have been institutionalized. 

Because med schools teach students with cadavers that are representative of typical patients, donations may not be accepted if the body was damaged in an accident, if the deceased passed away on the operating table or if an autopsy has been performed. A donation also might be rejected simply because there’s no available space in the mortuary.

Lastly, obesity can lead to a donation’s rejection. There are many reasons for this:

  1. According to an NBC News report in which Richard Drake — the director of anatomy and a professor of surgery for the Cleveland Clinic Body Donation Program — the excess of tissue can make it difficult for students to learn.
  2. The trays that store these bodies are simply not large enough for those taller than 6-foot-4 or heavier than about 300 pounds. 
  3. The embalming process also adds a good deal of weight —100 to 150 pounds can be added to a 250-pound person through embalming, according to the NBC News report
  4. It can be difficult for technicians and students to handle heavy cadavers. 


The not-so-pretty details: What happens to the body?

OK, so if you’re seriously considering this option, you should know where your body might end up. And it’s not always what you’d expect. Usually, other than choosing the institution, donors have no say over what their body is used for. You’ll need to thoroughly research any potential programs.

Some of the possibilities include:


1. Being studied by med students & researchers

Most donations end up at medical schools, where they play an extremely important role in how the world’s future doctors learn about the human body and critical medical techniques. As one med student at Emory University put it: “From a student’s perspective, it’s the only way to truly learn anatomy without putting a live patient at risk. Would you want your doctor taking out an appendix if they never saw on in situ before? The human body is so much more diverse and complex than can ever be depicted in a book or computer program.”

Additionally, she also pointed out, this part of the learning process often serves as a critical point in determining one’s specialty. It requires a certain kind of intellect and personality to become a surgeon, and some find they’re better suited to another profession. 

Though it’s very likely a body will serve as a model for students to dissect and practice surgery, there are other, harder-to-stomach possibilities. As StraightDope.com noted, bodies may be separated, with certain body parts going to different departments (e.g., the head could be sent to students studying brain surgery, and the legs could be sent to those learning knee surgery). It sounds gruesome, but if your own personal beliefs don’t conflict with it, why not contribute in any way you can when you no longer have any use for your body?


2. Being used for safety studies

Crash test dummies aren’t out of a job, but researchers have found there’s nothing like the real thing, so they sometimes use cadavers to test the effects of automobile crashes on the human body. This research, according to StraightDope.com, contributes to the development of devices, like lap-shoulder belts, air bags, dashboard padding and safer windshields.


3. Being researched at a, ahem, “body farm”

Institutions like the University of Tennessee Knoxville Anthropology Research Facility, also known as “the body farm,” accepts body donations so researchers can better understand the science of determining time of death — you know, like they do on crime shows.

What does that involve, you ask? The facility places bodies in various environments and records how long it takes for them to decompose. According to Slate, it goes even further and creates certain scenarios to study the decomposition: “Professors and graduate students mimic the many ways a murderer might dispose of his victims — by burying them in a shallow grave, encasing them in concrete, stuffing them in car trunks or wrapping them in plastic bags.”

As you can imagine, people aren’t exactly dying to volunteer (bad joke). The facility averages about 100 new donations per year. But here’s something shocking: Family donations make up more than 60% of these. According to the website, “Most of these types of donations are of individuals who were wishing to donate to science, but did not make the arrangements with a medical school prior to death, had been deceased too long prior to notifying the medical school, or did not meet one of the several regulations often associated with other donation programs.”

Though tough to think about, these types of donations truly are important to helping law enforcement solve crimes. As the facility’s website states, “Time since death is one of the first things an investigator tries to figure out since this helps in identifying the possible perpetrator and victim.”


4. Being displayed in museums/exhibit

So you didn’t get your 15 minutes of fame during your lifetime. There’s still a chance if you consider being a part of a museum or exhibit after your death. There’s the well-known “Body Worlds” exhibit, in which bodies are posed and hardened to appear life-like through a process called plastination.

As CNN pointed out, there’s also the Maxwell Museum of Anthropology at the University of New Mexico, which showcases an extensive skeleton collection. And the Mutter Museum at the College of Physicians of Philadelphia accepts donations of various body parts, particularly ones with abnormalities.


How to learn more

Donating your body to science is an honorable and generous way to give back to the world. As with any end-of-life decisions, it requires serious research and consideration. Don’t know where to start? Check out the University of Florida’s comprehensive list of body donation programs to learn more.