When a friend told me she planned to donate her body to science, I liked the idea right away. By donating my entire body, I would save my family the expense and stress of funeral or cremation arrangements while helping advance medical research. I’d also leave one last gift to the world.
“Whole body donation” programs typically pick up your body, cremate after use and return cremains to your loved ones, all at no cost to the donor.
Donated bodies teach medical students to perform life-saving surgeries, advance research on Alzheimer’s and other diseases and help improve an array of medical devices.
In a time when alternative end-of-life rituals are common, around 13% of people aged 54 to 74 years prefer donating their body to science over a traditional burial or cremation, and around 40% have positive feelings about whole body donation, according to a 2018 survey for Medcure, a non-transplant tissue bank headquartered in Portland, Oregon.
“Body donation is a great option for people who want to save money, but often, they don’t explore that option in advance,” says Gail Rubin, author of A Good Goodbye: Funeral Planning for Those Who Don’t Plan to Die. People don’t like to think about their own mortality, and some even fear that making end-of-life plans could hasten their demise, she says.
A few weeks ago, I began planning my own body donation. My first online search netted a slew of options, including medical schools and clinics, for-profit companies, nonprofit organizations and state body donation programs.
In my zeal to advance medical science while saving my family thousands of dollars — the 2017 median cost of a funeral, viewing and burial in the U.S. was $7,360, according to the National Funeral Directors Association — I was tempted to just pick a body donation program and register.
Instead, I determined to learn as much as possible before making my choice.
I quickly found that donating my body would be an easy process. Choosing the right body donation program for my wishes and comfort level, however, took a lot more digging.
The donation is in the details
My body donation fantasy: A group of medical students, eager to practice a new surgical technique, leans intently over the table upon which my cadaver rests, each of them eventually going on to save many lives. “What a kind and generous lady,” one of them thinks before slicing into my abdomen.
While that scenario could happen, the fine print on donor authorization forms with numerous body donation programs reveals that my body could also be used in a variety of other ways. My body could be dissected, with organs or appendages shipped to universities, medical schools or other entities ordering anatomical specimens.
With a few programs, my body, or parts of it, could be blown apart in weapons testing, undergo blunt trauma during safety training or hidden in the woods for search and rescue trainees to find.
While I’m not crazy about some potential uses of my donated body, I don’t mind if my foot ends up in Tennessee and my hand goes to Florida if that use makes life better and safer for those still alive.
The Revised Uniform Anatomical Gift Act prohibits buying or selling body parts. However, non-transplant tissue banks can charge for services when supplying donated bodies and anatomical specimens. The service fee allows body donation programs to recover costs of cremation and other expenses.
For-profit companies aren’t the only body donation programs charging a service fee. Medical schools and nonprofit non-transfer (transplant) tissue banks also may charge a fee to entities receiving your body or its parts. After all, someone must pay for your cremation and other body donation expenses.
“We don’t profit from our donor’s generosity,” says Lisa Rezendez, marketing manager for Medcure. “We need to remain operational and recover costs, so we charge a service fee for services provided. Those service fees provide cost reimbursement.”
Eventually, I narrowed body donation program candidates to only those accredited by the American Association of Tissue Banks (AATB). Accredited non-transfer tissue banks are inspected every three years in order to maintain accredited status and must comply with AATB standards, says AATB Communications Manager Deanna Puglia.
There are only seven AATB accredited tissue banks with whole body donation programs in the U.S. So, not all body donation programs operate under a watchful eye that extends beyond state regulations.
“Medcure maintains accreditation because we want to make sure we’re operating at the highest quality and ethical standard, but there are definitely some tissue banks in the U.S. operating without AATB oversight,” says Rezendez.
What about a medical school?
There is a lot to like about some of the accredited body donation programs. Most pay for body pickup and transport, a death certificate, cremation, and return of cremains. Some send a letter to the donor’s family members describing the area of science that he or she benefited. Several host annual ceremonies or post tributes honoring donors.
Even with all those body donation bells and whistles, I still wasn’t ready to make my decision. First, I needed to check out the medical school right down the street.
Donating my body would be easy at the University of Kansas Medical Center in Kansas City, Kansas, close to my home in Kansas City, Missouri. I’d need only download and sign its Willed Body Program bequeathal certificate, obtain signatures from two witnesses and mail in the form.
The program covers cremation and returning or interring the ashes but not transportation arrangement or costs. My family wouldn’t receive a report on the ways in which my body was used and could wait up to two years for my ashes. There was no guarantee my body would stay in one place, either.
If I lived in Ohio, I could donate my body to the Cleveland Clinic, which uses donated bodies exclusively in its own programs, most often to teach anatomy to first-year medical students. Medical school body donation programs vary, and many pay for cremation but not transportation or filing a death certificate.
Make an informed choice
If you want to donate your body to science, make sure you read the donation program’s FAQs and the fine print in donor authorization forms. Call the tissue bank (many are available 24/7) or medical school with questions, including:
- Where and how might my body be used?
- Can I choose to opt in or out of certain uses of my body such as forensic studies or safety and weapons testing? For example, while some tissue banks inform you in the donor form that your body can be used for things like forensic pathology, weapons testing, automobile safety research or search and rescue training, Medcure won’t allow your body to be used for those purposes unless you check an authorization box on the donor form.
- What are some of the universities, companies or other entities that receive anatomical specimens from your program?
After weighing my options, even though I’d save money by donating to a tissue bank body donation program, I chose the University of Kansas Medical Center.
I’ll make advance provisions to cover transportation costs and provide funeral home contacts so I can still save my family money and stress.
There’s something comforting about keeping my body close to home a little longer after I die, and I may have a greater chance of being that body on the table, teaching future doctors how to heal. If not, I’m okay with being shipped to parts unknown.
After all, my body has always taken good care of me. I don’t mind letting it help others, too.
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