Leave a Legacy of Medical Education: How to Donate Your Body to Science
Even in Death, You Can Serve Life
What Are Your Plans?
Long after your spirit vacates your body, will you be resting comfortably six feet under? Adorning the family mantel in an urn full of ashes? Or perhaps your cadaver will still be working, giving back to science?
After your soul has "left the building," the body you now inhabit can help to
- beautify and
- improve the lives of those left behind.
Before you say "yuck," take a closer look at the process of donating your body to science. Then decide for yourself if it's right for you.
Video: Donating Your Body to Science
"No one wants to die. Even people who want to go to heaven don't want to die to get there. And yet death is the destination we all share. No one has ever escaped it.
And that is as it should be, because Death is very likely the single best invention of Life. It is Life's change agent. It clears out the old to make ways for the new."— Steve Jobs, co-founder & former CEO of Apple, Inc.
Valuable Real Estate: Will You Be Taking It with You?
Currently, you occupy important living, breathing real estate. The average human body contains
- 206 bones
- about 22 square feet of skin (2 square meters) 1
- 78 organs -- including two kidneys, lungs, and corneas, and a brain that weighs about 3 pounds (a bit less than 1.5 kg), plus
- 650 muscles and
- collagen-rich tendons, ligaments, cartilage, joints, and other connective tissue.
So will you be taking these with you? Will you have use for them after you've eternally "gone home?"
Read the Fine Print
Those valuable partsand the vessel that houses them—has the power to make a blind man see, a lame man walk, and to transform a medical student into a highly skilled surgeon. But as with most real estate deals, it's important to read the fine print.
Advancing Science: One Donated Body at a Time
Who Wants Your Body After You're Done Using It?
Although you have little use for your deceased body, many others do have a need—some more legitimate than others. Who are these people? And why do they do want cadavers?
Choose What's Right for You
What Prompted My Interest
My interest in body donation evolved after several events.
- My father—who is still alive and kicking, thank you—has expressed the desire to donate his remains to science. He included it in his will but hasn't made specific arrangements. Does it matter where you donate your body to? Where does one start? What do you need to know now?
- After several failed cataract operations, my mother received a sight-preserving cornea transplant, compliments of a cadaver. (Her letter to the donor's family appears at the end of this article.)
- Similarly, during dental surgery, I received bone grafting from a cadaver. Knowing that you have directly benefitted from someone else's donation is humbling. It also creates questions.
- I also live with Multiple Sclerosis, an incurable and uniquely human disease for which there is no true animal model. I want to help others who struggle with the disease. But yet there are also questions about whether anatomical donation is the right choice for me. Can I guarantee my deceased body will be used in the way I want? Should it matter?
You're More Valuable Than You Think
Each year approximately 20,000 Americans donate their bodies to science (or their next-of-kin does it for them.)2 Most are motivated by altruism, although some are pragmatists who wish to forgo burial and cremation costs.
Many university medical schools run whole body donation programs for use in training tomorrow's doctors. However, even these educational institutions occasionally experience surpluses or deficits. That's when they turn to for-profit institutions for assistance.
American medical schools compete for body donations against both
- non-profit tissue banks and
- as many as 30 American "body broker" firms. These body brokers are legal, entrepreneurial businesses. They are profit-making firms that connect donated human corpses to those who might benefit.
For the organizations involved with body donations, benefits can be both scientific and financial. Routinely, non-profit tissue banks harvest bodies and their parts and send the donated human tissues to private, for-profit firms. Such non-profit tissue banks have been criticized for paying their executives annual salaries of hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Regardless of whether non-profit or for-profit middlemen supply them, cadavers or their parts typically end up with
- pharmaceutical and medical equipment companies,
- private medical and surgical training organizations
- medical schools, and
- military and government organizations.3
Unfortunately, a donor usually has no say in how their corpse will be used or who the final user will be. If someone guarantees you otherwise, read the fine print and ask questions. Treat body donation with the same caution that you would use when making any large contribution.
Stripped for Parts
Isn't Buying and Selling Bodies Illegal?
The cadaver is one case in which the whole is not worth more than the sum of its parts. It is not uncommon for a corpse's head, torso, limbs and other parts to be split up and used for different purposes.
Stripped for its parts, a deceased body may be worth as much as $250,000.4 The result is that America's tissue bank industry is $1 billion strong. (Some tissue banking companies even do business on the New York Stock Exchange.) What thus began as a selfless donation to science often ends up as a lucrative "medical device."
Here's the Loophole
While U.S. law prohibits buying and selling human tissues, an important loophole permits both non-profit and for-profit middlemen to charge inflated service fees for retrieving, transporting, preserving, and storing human remains. Although the donor's family doesn't pay these fees, donors are typically unaware that they will be fueling a booming business with their earthly remains.5
As a result of these ethical concerns, the industry is frequently criticized as "parts dealing" in everything but the name.6 And unlike the organ transplant industry, tissue and whole body brokers enjoy limited monitoring, government regulation, or oversight.
Uses For Donated Bodies and Their Parts: The Gift Of Life?
Whereas donors and families assume they are providing a gift of life, that may not always be the case. There are a variety of uses for both whole cadavers and their parts. Cadavers may even be shipped overseas, as some other countries have stronger cultural taboos and restrictions against anatomical donations.
Anatomical Gifts: Useful Donations That Help the Living
Here Are Examples of How Donated Cadavers Are Used:
Here's How Your Body Could Be Used
Skin grafts facilitate healing in burn and wound patients.
Sheets of freeze-dried human collagen is used to bulk up penises, while collagen injections smooth out wrinkles.
Bone putty -- produced from finely ground human bone -- is routinely used in spinal or dental surgery.
Government agencies and auto-makers use cadavers to test vehicle safety.
Cadaver dissection is a rite of passage in medical schools, where they are used to teach anatomy to first-year medical students.
Body parts have even been used in crucifixion experiments to evaluate the authenticity of the Shroud of Turin.
Medical training companies use body parts for ongoing education of surgeons, nurses, and allied health professionals (e.g., EMTs).
Forensic anthropologists and other scientists use "body farms" to study the effects of different environments on body decomposition (e.g., flesh-eating insects, various weather conditions).
Criminologists may recreate crime scenes using test corpses.
The military assesses protective gear by exploding bodies with landmines.
Body parts are preserved as medical lab specimens.
Plasticized body parts have been used for public health education displays, as in Gunther von Hagens' Body Worlds.
A Compassionate Overview: Body Donation for Surgical Training
What do you want done with your body after you die?
What's s Good Cadaver?
As useful as cadavers are, many people are surprised to hear that not all body donations are accepted. Learning that your own or a loved one's body is not wanted can create a sense of deep personal rejection.
Always have a back-up plan regarding your remains in case your donation is not suitable for science. Requirements vary from one program to another, but common reasons for rejection include:
- obesity or large size. Body donation programs frequently set height and weight limits (e.g., under 6'4" and 300 pounds).8 This is because embalming can easily add up to 100 pounds to the corpse's weight. Technicians find it difficult to lift and maneuver large bodies, and large corpses may not fit well on the metal storage trays.
- infection with HIV, hepatitis, tuberculosis, MRSA, C-difficile, or Creutzfeldt-Jacob disease
- organ donation (other than eyes), amputation, autopsy, decomposition, or previous embalming and
- death due to suicide or homicide, or extensive trauma at the time of death.
If your program of choice rejects you, you can always "shop around."
National Geographic Presents: Secrets Of the Body Farm
Differences Between Organ and Tissue Donation
After brain death but before the heart stops beating
Can be harvested after heart stops beating
Number of living persons who can be helped by one donor
Existence of industry regulations, monitoring, and oversight
Highly regulated with tracking and monitoring requirements
Loosely regulated with no required tracking, limited monitoring, and virtually no enforcement
Whom it primarily helps
Directly helps organ recipients
Directly helps researchers, scientists, and medical professionals. Also, patients who receive medical products derived from the donated body
Estimated size of industry (in dollars)
Who Can Donate
Under the Uniform Anatomical Gift Act (UAGA), donors who are at least 18 years old and competent to make the decision may gift all or part of their bodies to science. They make their wishes known through a will or a wallet donor card.
It is up to the deceased person's next-of-kin to ensure that their wishes are carried out. Alternatively, the donor's next-of-kin may make the donation in their behalf.
Deciding What To Donate
Donors may elect to bequeath
- their entire body (called "willed body donation") or
- specific portions of the body -- just their corneas, for example. Patients with neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, and MS may have a particular interest in donating their brains, spinal cords and a sample of their cerebrospinal fluid to a Brain Bank. Their generosity can facilitate the cure for others that evaded them in life.9
Steps For Donating Your Body To Science
- Make a personal decision to donate. Choose what's right for you.
- Determine what you will donate -- whole body or specific parts (e.g., cornea, brain).
- Find a recipient organization to receive your bequest (e.g., medical or mortuary school, non-profit tissue bank, or for-profit company). Fully understand any costs, their method of disposing of remains, and how your corpse may be used.
- Fill out their registration package, and notify your next of kin regarding your wishes.
- Put the bequest in your will. Carry the wallet card with you at all times.
- Develop and share an alternate plan in case your body is rejected at the time of death.
The Devil's In the Details
If you have made the decision to donate your tissues, you can save your loved ones confusion and duress by pre-selecting the organization to receive your donation.
Do Your Research
Investigate the details of your donation, including
- how your religion views body donation (if religion is important to you)
- the timing and method for body disposal once your cadaver has made its contribution to science. It is not uncommon to return cremated remains to a donor's next-of-kin. Medical schools often offer memorial services at the end of the academic year, with students, faculty and next-of-kin in attendance.
- the total cost of your donation, including fees for transporting your body to the receiving facility, obtaining a death certificate, newspaper obituaries, embalming, cremation and shipping your cremated remains back to your family
It is also important to register with the organization that will be receiving your remains. Discuss your decisions with your family so they won't be surprised when they need to execute your wishes. Consider also sharing your rationale and back-up plan in case your body is not suitable for donation at the time of death.
And then go live the rest of your life. Appreciate the life you have before you earn your halo.
Promoted To Glory
Euphemisms for Death and Dying
Answered the final summons, Closed shop, Headed for the last roundup, Took his final bow
Assumed room temperature
Went to a better place, Went to his reward, Met his maker, Was promoted to Glory, Sprouted wings, Joined the choir invisible, Laid down his burden, Took a harp
Was taken out of production, Passed his sell-by date, Bought the farm, Cashed in his chips
Counting worms, Took a dirt nap, Examines the radishes from below, Eats dandelions by the root, Picks turnips with a stepladder, Pushes up daisies, Became a root inspector
Wears a pine overcoat (i.e., a wooden coffin), Bought a pine condo
Bit the biscuit, Bit the dust
Sleep & Rest
Took the great cat nap, Turned up his toes, Went on a permanent vacation
Travel & Leaving
Checked out, Departed this Earth, Went over the Big Ridge, Went the way of all flesh, Went North (or South), Followed the light, Left the building, Entered the double doors, Returned to his source, Used his one-way ticket
Had a negative patient outcome, Became living challenged, Kicked the oxygen habit
Excerpt From a Letter to a Donor's Family
Because of the selfless donation of a tissue donor, my mother received a cornea transplant in 2012 after two failed cataract surgeries left her with a torn iris, a damaged cornea, and 20/400 vision. Her independence had disappeared along with her vision. She could no longer drive, and everyday tasks such as reading became difficult.
A cornea transplant changed her world. Here is an excerpt from the appreciation letter she wrote to her donor's next-of-kin:
"[My surgery] is where your loved one enters, for s/he transformed my life. It has been just over two months since the transplant, and I am driving again, have no pain, am reading, and enjoy eyesight that is now 20/40 and still improving. I can't tell you how wonderful it is to play board games or a game of ball out in the yard with my grandchildren, or even to see clearly the smiles on their faces.
Life is beautiful again, and I have you and your loved one to thank for it. Your selfless act of donation restored my vision.
I am now and will forever be grateful and humbled. Behind my success story is your story of sadness and sacrifice. Please know that that knowledge never leaves my thoughts. I am grateful beyond words. I hope you will find some solace that some glimmer of goodness could come out of such a sad event. ...
Having become a recipient, I feel blessed that one day I may be able to bring some light into someone else's life. Thank you from the bottom of my heart!"
Cadavers: Donate Your Spare Parts To Science
Interested In Body Donation?
Following are resources to help you locate a recipient organization for your body donation:
The University of Florida Anatomical Gift Program maintains a List of Body Donation Programs In the United States
The Harvard Brain Tissue Resource Center central collection and distribution program for postmortem human brains used in research. The Brain Bank supports research on neurodegenerative diseases and psychiatric illness.
Google "willed body program" and the name of your state.
What's In A Name? Locations With Deadly Names
1Rutland, Sarah. ""How much skin do we have?"." HowStuffWorks. Accessed March 17, 2014. http://health.howstuffworks.com/skin-care/information/anatomy/how-much-skin-do-we-have.htm.
2Freedman, Donna. "How to Donate Your Body to Science." Get Rich Slowly. Last modified January 30, 2012. http://www.getrichslowly.org/blog/2012/01/30/how-to-donate-your-body-to-science/.
3Shapiro, Joseph. "The Seamy Side Of The Human Tissue Business." NPR.org. Last modified July 19, 2012. http://www.npr.org/2012/07/19/156988089/the-seamy-side-of-the-human-tissue-business.
4Rogell, Eric. "Your Body Part Price List: You're Worth More Dead Than Alive (Infographic)." DiscoveryNews. Last modified April 18, 2012. http://news.discovery.com/human/life/your-body-part-price-list-youre-worth-more-dead-than-alive-infographic.htm.
5The Economist. "The cadaver market: Death, where is thy bling?" Accessed March 17, 2014. http://www.economist.com/news/united-states/21595433-growing-industry-tries-meet-demand-corpses-death-where-thy-bling.
6Katches, Mark, William Heisel, and Ronald Campbell. "Body Donors Fueling A Booming Business." Sweet Liberty. Last modified April 17, 2000. http://www.sweetliberty.org/issues/hate/bodybrokers.htm.
7Aleccia, JoNel. "Donating your body to science? Nobody wants a chubby corpse." NBC News. Last modified January 9, 2012. http://vitals.nbcnews.com/_news/2012/01/06/10016083-donating-your-body-to-science-nobody-wants-a-chubby-corpse.
8Solon, Olivia. "Why I'm donating my brain to science (and why you should too)." Wired UK. Last modified February 10, 2012. http://www.wired.co.uk/news/archive/2012-02/10/donating-brain-to-science.
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