How Donating Your Body to Science Works

Medical students dissect cadavers in an operating room at the Ecole de Medicine in Paris, 1988.
Medical students dissect cadavers in an operating room at the Ecole de Medicine in Paris, 1988.
© Yann Arthus-Bertrand/Corbis

For some, the thought is decidedly unpalatable, if not a bit gruesome — donating your body to science. Who would want to do such a thing? Images of people slicing and dicing you every which way until you're unrecognizable aren't amusing. Nor is the thought of medical students or researchers possibly laughing over your body as they work. Other people, however, view anatomical donation as a noble endeavor — possibly the noblest there is. Let those students and scientists use every muscle, bone and fiber in your body, if it will better the lives of all of those who come after you. And who knows? Maybe your humble body will be the one to yield the clues that enable a cure for cancer.

Whatever your thoughts regarding donating your body to science, know this: there is a critical need for dead bodies [sources: Texas A&M Health Science Center, Maryland Dept. of Health and Mental Hygiene]. No truly accurate statistics exist, since there is no central regulatory organization tracking anatomical gifts, but experts estimate 10,000 to 15,000 bodies are donated annually to medical schools in the U.S., with additional donations going to private entities, corporations and government agencies [sources: Miller, Science Care]. A 2009 article penned by a Harvard Business School professor said the annual number of bodies donated in America to all groups was about 20,000. Lest you think these figures sound like a wealth of bodies, the Anatomical Gift Association of Illinois — just one group among hundreds — estimates it could use about 425 cadavers a year and had received that number only three times between 2005 and 2011 [source: Bushey].

Interested, but worried your religious beliefs will prevent a donation? The majority of religions actually support anatomical donations. Baptists, for example, view donating your body to science as an act of charity. Catholicism says organ and tissue donations are acts of love. Hinduism says donating your body isn't prohibited by religious law; the decision is up to you. All four branches of Judaism encourage such donations. Although Jehovah's Witnesses have rules against some blood transfusions, the religion says whole-body donations are OK, as long as blood is removed from the organs and tissue. Most Islamic scholars say organ donation is permitted but not whole body donation [source: Science Care].

Hospitals generally go out of their way to treat donated bodies with respect. For instance, at Kansas City University, medical students are told the names of the deceased and also how they died before the students use them as part of their coursework [source: Science Care]. And most facilities hold a yearly memorial service to honor the donors. Science Care, an organization that connects whole body donors with medical facilities, plants a tree in honor of each donor.

Before you make any rash decisions for or against body donation, read on to see how the process works.

Exactly How Does the Body-Donation Process Work?

There's no one set process for body donation, since each organization that takes such donations has its own set of rules. However, the process generally works something like this: First, you need to figure out where you want your body to go — a particular university-affiliated medical school (the most common option), a private organization, or a government agency? You'll need to fill out a donor consent form ahead of time. Make sure your family knows of your decision, and that it's written into your will. It's also possible for your family to make the decision to donate your body at the time of your death [sources: US-Funerals, Miller].

Once you die, your chosen institution will determine if it will accept your body. There is no guarantee it will. While factors like age and ethnicity don't matter, donors with HIV 1 or 2, an AIDS-related death, Hepatitis B or C, syphilis, kidney failure or jaundice, a severe bacterial or viral infection resulting in isolation and extensive trauma are generally declined. Corpses topping 300 pounds (136 kilograms) are typically turned away as well [sources: US-Funerals, Aleccia]. Because your body may be declined, make sure you've made alternate arrangements. You don't want your loved ones suddenly stranded with a dead body on their hands.

If your body is accepted by your chosen institution, that group typically covers all associated costs, including transportation, filing of the death certificate, cremation after use and the return of cremated remains [source: Science Care]. Some groups do require that you arrange to deliver the body to them, especially if it's in another state.

What happens once your body is in a particular institution's hands depends on where you donated your body, and what that group's mission is. But most places will not let you donate your body for a specific purpose — they want to be able to use your body as needed. Medical facilities generally require your body to come with all of its organs, meaning you can't donate your body and also be an organ donor. Other groups, such as Science Care, do allow both organ donation and whole-body donation [sources: Miller, Science Care].

When the group is finished with your body, the leftovers are cremated and returned to your family. No family is ever paid for a body donation; that's illegal [source: Miller].

Pros and Cons of Donating Your Body

Hand surgeons practice the newest plastic surgery techniques on cadaver hands during a workshop at the Institute of Anatomy, Friedrich Schiller University in Germany.
Hand surgeons practice the newest plastic surgery techniques on cadaver hands during a workshop at the Institute of Anatomy, Friedrich Schiller University in Germany.
© Jan-Peter Kasper/dpa/Corbis

On the fence about whether or not to donate your body to science? Perhaps you'll develop some clarity if you look at the pros and cons.

Pros: The biggest pro for donating your body is that you'll be helping advance science, medicine and potentially a host of other fields, such as car safety (more about that on the next page). Cadavers are used to teach students about anatomy; they're used by students and physicians to practice various surgeries; and they're used in medical experiments to study diseases such as Parkinson's and Alzheimer's [source: Testa].

Another advantage of donating your body is that it saves you a boatload of money. Funerals aren't cheap. Neither is cremation. In 2012, the average cost of a funeral with casket was $7,045, and a funeral with a vault, required by most cemeteries, was $8,343 [source: National Funeral Directors Association]. Even a simple cremation runs at least $1,500 and can set you back as much as $6,000 if it's performed following a funeral service [source: Testa]. Donating your body is generally free, although there can be some minor charges, depending on which organization you're working with [source: Marsden].

Finally, arranging to donate your body can be a lot less time-consuming than planning a funeral, picking out a casket and headstone, etc. However, if you still want to plan a memorial service when your cremains are returned to your family, it may be a wash.

Cons: For various medical reasons, not all bodies donated are able to be accepted. If you don't have a contingency plan in place and your body is rejected, your loved ones will be left scrambling to put together a funeral at a very stressful time. Even worse, if you hadn't planned for this possibility, they could be left with a sizeable, unexpected bill.

Always been a fan of organ donation? While some organizations, like Science Care, accept bodies for both organ and whole-body donation, most medical schools only accept bodies with all of their organs, since they use organs in their research (eyes still may be donated.) If organ donation is important to you, make sure you know the rules of the group who will be taking your body [source: Testa].

Last, remember that once you die, your body needs to be handed over pretty quickly. While your family will eventually receive your cremains and may hold a memorial service at that time, they will generally not be able to have a funeral with your body shortly after death, and then donate it. Some people may miss the therapeutic aspect of holding a funeral service, although they may opt for a memorial service without the body.

Creative Forms of Body Donation

Visitors view a full body human specimen during a "Body Worlds" exhibition, which features real human bodies and organs donated to medical science and preserved using "plastination."
Visitors view a full body human specimen during a "Body Worlds" exhibition, which features real human bodies and organs donated to medical science and preserved using "plastination."
© Vesterinen Viktor/ITAR-TASS Photo/Corbis

Every country that allows whole-body donation has its own rules regulating the practice. Most, if not all, countries that allow the practice use cadavers to train medical students and conduct research into various ailments, such as Alzheimer's disease.But other countries allow donated bodies to be used in additional ways. Perhaps one of the following uses for a cadaver, all allowed in the U.S., will be more appealing to you than research or dissection.

  • Crash Testing. Have a need for speed in this life? Your corpse can carry on this predilection if you allow it to be used in crash testing. Although computer simulations and dummies are also used, nothing compares to a cadaver when simulating what happens to the human body during various types of car crashes. The practice began in the 1930s at Indiana's Wayne State University. Today automakers and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration help fund cadaver testing at various educational institutions [source: Hyde].
  • Forensic studies. It's not always easy for law enforcement or medical experts to determine a corpse's time of death, or identify a partially-decomposed body. But thanks to the body farm run by the University of Tennessee's Forensic Anthropology Center, they're better able to figure such things out. About 650 corpses are lying in a field at the Knoxville "farm," where researchers and students come to study bodies in various stages of decay [source: Cohen].
  • Plastination. If you're one of the masses around the globe to have caught a Body Worlds plastination exhibit, you may have been captivated by these hardened, creatively posed bodies, intended for health education purposes. The fat and water are removed from the bodies and rubber silicone is inserted instead. Just know that if you sign on as a donor, your body won't necessarily be sent on tour; some plastinated cadavers end up at medical schools and training programs [source: Cohen].
  • Skeleton-formation. The University of New Mexico in Albuquerque operates the Maxwell Museum of Anthropology, which is always looking to add to its extensive skeleton collection. No, the skeletons aren't on display; researchers apply to work with them for reasons of physical anthropology and forensics [source: Laboratory of Human Osteology].

Author's Note: How Donating Your Body to Science Works

The minute I got my driver's license at age 16, I signed up to be an organ donor. But after researching the writing this piece, I'm not sure I could take the next step and donate my entire body. I'm not sure why I'm hesitant, but I am.

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Sources

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