When it comes to death, things are changing in the United States. It used to be that traditional casket burials were the norm almost without exception. These days, about half of those in the United States are buried, while cremation rates have risen from 4 percent to the roughly 50 percent we see now.
But that's not the only change we're seeing about end-of-life decisions.
Donating your body to science — or more specifically, research and education — is becoming a more popular option for many Americans, as the Associated Press reports. U.S. medical schools have reported significant increases in body donations. Science Care, the world's largest accredited body donation program, has seen donations double since 2010, according to the program's vice president of donor services, Melinda Ellsworth.
Brandi Schmitt, the director of anatomical services at the University of California, reports a 6 percent increase across their five-campus program during the last few years.
"I suspect that it correlates to population age demographics," she writes via email. "And perhaps to increasing awareness about whole body donation." As more of the population ages, there might be a growing interest in alternatives to traditional burials.
Ellsworth also attributes the rise to cultural shifts. There's the acceptance of organ donation as a norm, for one. "It lets people start thinking, 'well, yeah, I'm an organ donor — who wouldn't be an organ donor?'" she says. That opens the door to the accessibility of whole body donation.
And as people become more comfortable with cremation, Ellsworth says, "They're also willing to take the next step to say, if I'm interested in cremation, why not give back to body donation before cremation?" It doesn't hurt that the donation — and cremation — will present no cost to the families, either.
When funeral costs are rising nearly 29 percent in a decade, the prospect of a free burial is no small thing. With funerals running a whopping $7,181 to $10,000 on average, the cost of donating your body to science is virtually nothing. Schmitt says that they — like other donation programs — cremate the body afterward, at no cost to the family. Sometimes the ashes are returned to the family; at the University of California programs, they're scattered at sea.
There's also a growing understanding that there's very little religious objection to body donation. "I would say that most religions see organ and body donations as a gift, an act of charity for humankind," says Ellsworth. Science Care points out that a myriad of religions — from Catholicism to Mennonite, Hindu to the Latter Day Saints — either encourage or have no theological argument with body donation.
It's important to note that most programs aren't going to give you a lot of choice in what happens to your body. None will, for instance, guarantee that your body will be accepted for donation; exclusions might occur if your body has suffered severe trauma or burns or has a communicable disease. And while some places might try to accommodate requests for what type of research is conducted on your body, a lot of medical schools won't let you specify. (And in general, research is confidential — your family probably isn't going to get a "result" from any study or research conducted.)
Of course, nobody is going to make you donate your body to science. Should you change your mind at any time, you can rescind your offer of donation.