Organ donation is very common in the United States. Families find it comforting to know that their loved ones “live on” by saving or helping the life of someone else.
Body donation is different. Not just some organs, but the whole body is dedicated to scientific research. People don’t discuss body donation as often, yet almost anyone can donate their body to science.
- Have you or a loved one ever considered whole body donation and what it entails?
- How do you become a body donor?
- What if you are ill – can you still donate your body?
- Is there an age limit to body donation?
If you or a loved one has had these questions, this article is for you. Read on to learn how to donate your body to science, and what happens when you do so.
How to Donate Your Body to Science
To arrange to donate your body after death, you will need to get in touch with a body donation program.
You’ll need to:
1 Research which program you prefer
By registering with a program, you can state your intent to donate your body to science. By donating, you will have the opportunity to contribute to future medical advancements.
Where to Donate
There are three types of organizations that will accept whole body donations.
- Medical schools and/or hospital research centers
- Tissue banks
- Forensic research and training centers
Continue reading to find out more about each of those types of facilities.
Here is a shortlist of national agencies where you can register to donate your body:
Also, see here for a helpful list of body donation programs by state.
What Happens When You Donate Your Body to Science?
Upon donating your body to science, you are helping medical students and medical researchers, mortuary science students, and forensic scientists. Donating your body to science saves lives and advances techniques. You are a hero – plain and simple.
Here’s what happens during the donation process:
Step 1: Body Transportation
The donation program will pick up the decedent, or the body is transferred to the program’s site.
Step 2: Research
With a full-body donation to a medical school, the body needs to be transported or refrigerated quickly. A speedy transfer will help forestall any decomposition.
Once at the school or research site, the body undergoes a unique embalming process which lasts longer than funeral home embalming. This is because the intent is purely for preservation, and not for appearance.
For body donations that don’t go to a medical school, “body-brokers” or “tissue banks” will match certain parts of the body with requests from medical research teams and educators.
The parts that have been requested are used for research, testing new medical procedures, tools, and equipment. Partial remains are typically cremated and then returned to the next-of-kin.
Forensic Body Donation Program
Forensic body donation programs, sometimes called “body farms,” are used for forensic research. These criminal justice research programs accept bodies when eyes, organs, and tissue have been donated for transplantation.
Their studies involve observing the body’s natural decomposition, which can take many years. They also sometimes will use donated bodies for unique purposes, such as to help train cadaver dogs.
The remains are not typically returned to the family through this type of program.
Step 3: Cremation & Return to the Family
When the donor’s useful afterlife ends, their remains are cremated and, if requested, returned to the family along with a death certificate.
Most donors will be with a program for 2-3 years. Lastly, the donor body undergoes final disposition. The program follows what the donor selected on the consent form.
Body Donation Pros & Cons
- You will save yourself and your family thousands of dollars.
- Something “good” – advancement of scientific knowledge – comes out of your death.
- You have the potential to save thousands of lives.
- Full-body donation supports humane medical experiments. Because nothing compares to human tissue when studying the human body, a cadaver is preferable to testing on animals.
- You won’t have a traditional funeral or cremation at the time of death.
- Some religions prohibit whole-body donation.
- Certain diseases will cause the body to be rejected from the program.
- Your family may be disappointed or experience a form of complicated grief.
Donate Your Body to Science FAQ
Whole-body donation opens up a whole new chapter of questions about death and dying. We’ve put together answers to some of the most common questions below.
Can your family block your wishes to donate your body to science?
The short answer is yes. That is why it is important to make your wishes clear to your legal next-of-kin.
The organ donor symbol on the back of your license does not indicate your consent for body donation. You need to register with the organ donation organization and the specific donation program you have chosen.
Once you have selected a donation type and/or program, you will need to fill out the proper paperwork. Put everything in writing. Don’t forget to notify your lawyer, and also be sure to talk about your wishes with your family.
What if I change my mind about donating my body?
If you change your mind about donation, you can opt-out of the program. You have to notify the program in writing and update your directives.
Is body donation the same thing as organ donation?
Body donation and organ donation are not the same. But you can do both.
If you are planning on organ donation along with whole body donation, check with the program you have chosen. Some programs only accept bodies with complete organs. Therefore, if you donate your organs, many programs will disqualify you.
What disqualifies you from donating your body to science?
There are a few things that will disqualify you for donation. Consequently, it would be best to have a backup plan. Just in case you run into unforeseen circumstances.
- The death occurred too long ago.
- The body is not medically suitable for donation.
- Prion Diseases
- Hepatitis B
- Hepatitis C
- It is not feasible to transport the body to the program location.
- The facility is full at the current time.
- Your next-of-kin doesn’t comply with your wishes.
- Your body may not be suitable if any of the following have occurred:
- Organ donation – in some programs, your body must have all organs to qualify.
Upwards of 90% of potential donors will qualify to donate their bodies to science. Having cancer, heart disease, diabetes, and advanced age doesn’t exclude you from donating your body to science.
Do you get free cremation?
Programs that accept body donations provide a free cremation. And most importantly, they return the ashes to the next of kin within about four weeks after cremation.
Note that the cremation will take place only after the research is complete. This could take up to several years, so do not expect to have your loved one’s remains back quickly.
You’ll have plenty of time to choose the perfect cremation urn. Browse our Urn Gallery for ideas.
Is there a payment for body donation?
No one will receive any payment for body donation. Federal law prohibits payment of any kind.
Are there laws about body donation?
Yes, there are laws regarding body donation. The donations must follow state and local laws. Institutions may have additional requirements for a body to qualify for specific programs. But they cannot have fewer requirements than the state and local governments, and their program must follow all state and federal regulations.
The HRSA (U.S. Health Resources and Services Administration) regulates body donation. The laws are primarily intended to protect the dignity and wishes of the decedent by ensuring that proper care is taken by the research programs. You can read more at OrganDonor.gov.
Will the funeral home work with us when a body is donated to science?
Yes. The funeral home will work with your family regarding body donation. Often their main role is to receive the remains and help you arrange a dignified disposition and farewell. This might include interment in a columbarium niche, a burial or committal service, or facilitating a memorial service.
However, when a body is donated to science you are not required to use a funeral home. Some families or individuals choose this route to save on funeral expenses. After death, the donation program will arrange body transportation. Once the research is complete, you will receive a simple plastic temporary urn with the remains inside.
You can use the temporary urn to scatter the ashes, or store the remains permanently (it’s called a ‘temporary’ urn as a subtle way to encourage you to buy a more expensive ‘permanent’ urn). That’s the most affordable option.
But if you would like to get a more meaningful, beautiful, or display-worthy urn (or something that people might not even recognize as an urn, like our attractive Memorial Plaque Urns or the unique Floating Shelf Urn), we invite you to browse the premium cremation urns available at our retail store, Urns Northwest.
See more here: Our 12 Best-Selling Urns for Ashes That Families Love
Karen Roldan has been in the funeral industry since 2006, and a licensed funeral director and embalmer since 2008. She is currently licensed in the states of Indiana and Pennsylvania.
She attended Worsham College of Mortuary Science in Wheeling, IL, and graduated with an associate degree in Mortuary Science.
Karen enjoys wring about the funeral industry because her passion is helping families in their deepest time of need. She feels being a funeral director is a calling and she is proud to fulfill this role.
Karen is a wife and the mother of four sons. She, her husband and their youngest son call Pennsylvania home.