We’ve all heard of donating your body to science, but what does it really mean? Let’s talk about what happens when you give your body to further medical research and education. (We won’t be discussing donation of individual organs or tissues, which is covered here.)
Content warning: There are some potentially disturbing images of dead bodies throughout this story.
What Does “Body Donation” Mean?
Body donation, or an anatomical gift, is simply the donation of your full body after your death to be used for medical research. They will most commonly be used in anatomy classes to educate medical students or even fitness instructors, and for surgical practice.
In Mary Roach’s popular book Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, she expresses surprise and concern that parts, at least, of donated bodies could end up as practice for plastic surgeons. She feels that if someone donated their corpse, “for the betterment of science,” that perhaps they’d be chagrined if they knew they were just practice noses for rhinoplasty. Roach does concede, however, that using donated cadavers in this way is justifiable, as surgeons who do these procedures do need to learn how to do them well. And while you may never really know where your remains might end up after signing them away, or in what way they’ll be utilized, there are plenty of institutions that will be grateful for your anatomical gift and will treat your remains with respect.
How Will My Body Be Treated?
Many people feel some anxiety about how their body will be treated, post-death. And not without cause. There is a long history of medical students having a laugh with their cadavers, or dressing them up, or giving them irreverent nicknames. Will medical students make fun of your corpse and take pictures with you?
Fortunately, most of that behavior is ancient history, and medical schools are actively working to teach their students empathy and respect for their cadavers.
Earlier this spring, Mercy College in Dobbs Ferry, New York, held an Anatomical Donor Appreciation Ceremony. A poem was read by Dr. Ferdinand Esser, the tissue-compliance officer. He extorted people to “listen to the generous presence of the donors.” A slideshow was played to musical accompaniment featuring statements of thanks from the students to their cadavers, their “silent mentors.” Glass bowls full of LED candles featuring the initials of each of the donated bodies sat on each table.
Dr. Kathleen Golisz, the Associate Dean of the School of Health and Natural Sciences at Mercy, points out the idea for the ceremony came from the students, who wanted to honor their cadavers. She says, “A lot of colleges don’t do anatomy with cadavers anymore, but we really have a strong belief that it gives you the opportunity to learn something that you can only learn this way.” With palpable passion, she speaks of her desire to give stories to the people who donated their bodies, to wonder about their histories, and to have empathy for their injuries or medical conditions.
Emily Feit, an occupational therapy graduate student, had a unique perspective on the event. When she was only three years old, she attended the ceremony that honored her grandfather for donating his body to the University of Iowa. Twenty years later, she attended the donor appreciation ceremony for her grandmother’s body. Now, this was her third ceremony.
In the context of her own studies, she described her appreciation during her lab, her wonderment at the life the body used to hold, “realization that this tissue that I could hold in my hands and was able to study up close, was once a living part of someone’s very life” — “the absolute miracle of inhabiting the body.”
The awe and excitement that the staff and students experience, along with the reverence they feel toward the cadavers, are reassuring for anyone considering making an anatomical gift.
Why Should I Donate My Body?
Last year National Geographic reported that while the demand for teaching cadavers is up, supply is down. Recently, New York State passed a controversial law ending a 162-year-old tradition that allowed unclaimed bodies to be used by medical schools. Now, written consent by the next of kin is required, or proof that the deceased had planned to donate their body. There may not be a better time to consider making the altruistic gift of the body that you won’t be using anymore.
Golisz talked about other, more practical, reasons why a person or their next of kin might donate their body to a medical school. “It’s a waste to put me in the ground — make me purposeful out there,” she says. “Donating your body [also] saves the cost of the entire process of a funeral. There are family members who say, ‘I don’t have the 8 to 12 thousand dollars it costs to have a funeral.’”
How Can You Donate Your Body?
Mercy receives their teaching cadavers from Albany Medical Center, whose main source is private donation. You can either arrange to donate your own body in advance of your death, or the gift can be arranged by an executor after a death. All you have to do is fill out the form; it doesn’t even need to be notarized. The school keeps a record of your donation and you will also be issued a donation card. You can download the necessary forms here.
Obviously, this is one specific example, but you can contact medical schools in your area to inquire about donating your body. In fact, Albany even offers a list of other medical schools in the U.S. with anatomical-gift programs.
There are also companies such as BioGift and Science Care, who are more like body brokers. But keep in mind that these are not medical schools — they are for-profit companies that make money around the donation and distribution of cadavers. There is also a greater chance that you will not remain whole, as a full medical cadaver, but be divided up and sent to different institutions that have different needs.
With any of these options, you’ll want to make the decision ahead of time, tell your loved ones, and have some written instructions for those who will need them. The usefulness of a body depends upon its speedy delivery: a will is not the place for body-donation instructions. Wills often aren’t even read until well after a body would be donatable.
What’s a “Body Farm” and What Happens If I Donate My Body to One?
Behind the University of Tennessee Medical Center in Knoxville is the Anthropological Research Facility — commonly known as “The Body Farm.”This is the first and the most well-known of these facilities, although there are several others in the United States. Corpses are strewn about the grounds — in open air, in car trunks, on mattresses—to replicate how subjects of police investigations are often found.With these bodies, students learn how to determine time of death using the rate of decomposition under different conditions. Forensic entomologists will also be able to learn from the insects that inhabit a corpse and how quickly they do what they need to do.
Once decomposition and study has run its course, your skeleton will join the esteemed WM Bass Donated Skeletal Collection at the facility. You can learn about donating your body to the Anthropological Research Facility here.
There are similar facilities to which you can donate your body toward forensic study in Florida, North Carolina, Illinois, and Colorado, and rumors of one planned in Pennsylvania, at the California University of Pennsylvania,although that’s been difficult to confirm. A Wisconsin location is in similar limbo. There are also two separate body farms in Texas — one in Huntsvilleand one in San Marcos. There is one currently in the works in Michigan. Bodies decay very differently on a Colorado mountain than they do in a Florida swamp, and forensic investigators need to be trained in the specifics of their geographic areas.
What If You’re More of An Artistic Type?
Here’s a unique option: Donate your remains to Body Worlds. You’ve probably seen a version of this traveling exhibit, masterminded by maverick Dr. Gunther von Hagens, in which flayed, preserved corpses are displayed in various active poses, such as playing sports, dancing, or riding skinned, dead horses.
The donated corpses are preserved using a method called “plastination,” which involves replacing the fluids and fats in the body with silicone rubber and then hardening them with gas, heat, or ultraviolet light. Von Hagens claims that you’ll be preserved permanently, so there’s no need to ever decide between burial or cremation.
Readers should note Hagens came under fire in 2009 for an exhibit in Germany in which dead people, presumably strangers to each other in life, were posed in the throes of sexual intercourse. So you never know in what way he may use your remains, but if you’re game, you can contact Body Worlds about donation for plastination here.
source: gizmodo.com by Christine Colby