Your death can lead to life.  No, this isn’t an oxymoron.  When people die, their bodies can be used by science to learn new and important things about biology and, more specifically, the human body.   In fact, an estimated 10,000 to 15,000 Americans donate their whole body, after death, to medical facilities throughout the country to be used in medical research projects, anatomy lessons and surgical practice.   So as you’re charitable in life, you could also be charitable in death.

But here’s the part that makes this proposition even more attractive; it’s not really a charitable contribution.  After science has been able to use your body, it will provide free cremation — which typically costs $1,000 to $3,000.   A basic burial averages close to $6,600 in the United States.  If you are a whole body donor, your body will be returned to your family, usually within a year or two if the family wishes to keep your remains. (Typically, studies of donated bodies are completed in six to 15 months) Whole body donation programs exist to assist institutions and organizations that rely on specimens, either in whole or part, to conduct research and training. Educational institutions use bodies for anatomy classes, and organizations developing medical devices and/or less invasive surgical procedures will often utilize whole body specimens.   Although programs vary in what no-cost includes, services such as transportation, cremation, a copy of a death certificate, and the return of cremated remains to family is typical.

The gift of whole-body donation is authorized by the individual, but the legal next of kin is responsible for carrying out the donor’s wishes. If the next of kin opposes the donation, it will not occur.

If you do decide you want to donate your body, you should make arrangements in advance with a body donation program in your area. Many, but not all, programs are offered by university-affiliated medical schools. The University of Florida maintains a list of U.S. programs and their contact information at www.med.ufl.edu/anatbd/usprograms.html.  In addition to the medical schools, there are also a number of private organizations like at United Tissue Network, MedCure.org, Anatomy Gifts Registry, BioGift and Science Care that accept whole body donations as well.   You should apply in advance……applications after someone has died are very difficult to process because of the time limitations.

Keep in mind that even people who die of exotic or unusual diseases may be useful to science.  In fact, the more unusual, the better.  Researchers and educators often need donors with certain diseases and conditions. Most disease processes, including cancer and dementias, are acceptable, and there typically is no age limit. Depending on the program, a few diseases may result in decline, including HIV/AIDS and hepatitis B or C.

There are some conditions to which you should be aware:

  • Organ donors excluded: Most programs require that you donate your whole body in its entirety. So if you want to be an organ donor, you won’t qualify to be a whole body donor too. Some organizations will accept a whole body donor who has also had a primary donation (live organ donation) or a secondary donation (corneas, whole eyes, skin, and bones) completed for transplant into a live patient. Primary and secondary donation are both for transplant purposes, while tertiary donation such as whole body donation is not for transplant purposes.
  • Autopsies are not included:  Whole body donation programs do not perform autopsies on donors. An autopsy is typically only performed when no witnesses are present at the time of death, if foul play is suspected, or if the family requests and pays for one.
  • Timing Matters:  Even donors who seem like excellent candidates at the time of a whole body donation program’s pre-screening may not be eligible upon death. For example, if the donor passes and isn’t transported and placed into refrigeration in a timely manner, or if the death involved severe trauma to multiple bones. Furthermore, even after the point of acceptance, donors are occasionally declined.
  • Not all bodies are accepted: If, for example, your body has been badly damaged in a car accident or if you’re morbidly obese, you may not qualify. In a country where more than a third of adults are obese, the impact of extra weight extends, it seems, even beyond death.   Most programs have weight limits that generally require that a body be no more than 250 pounds.
  • Body transporting is covered: Most programs will pay to transport your body to their facility unless your body must be moved from out of state.
  • No special requests: Most programs won’t allow you to donate your body for a specific purpose — you give them the body and they decide how to use it.
  • Funeral services are not covered: Most programs will allow your family to conduct any final services they wish before taking custody of your body, but they won’t pay for it.
  • Your family won’t be paid:  The Federal Uniform Anatomical Gift Act prohibits buying and selling of bodies.

Should you decide to donate, research the options and make the arrangements yourself. A nebulous “please donate my body to science” request isn’t fair to your loved ones. When you die they’ll be shocked and grieving; don’t make them look up the different programs and try to figure out what you would have wanted.  That’s why you want talk to your family about it now, and don’t be surprised if you encounter objections. Listen to them. It will be easier to answer such concerns if you’ve read the FAQ sections of med school or donation company websites.   Any objecting loved ones may be relieved to learn that donating a loved one’s body to science is for many people a comforting and altruistic act that makes meaning of a personal loss. For the many families unable to afford the cost of a funeral or cremation, it’s also a practical one, as the businesses that accept and arrange such donations typically offer to pay for cremation.