Whole Body Donation: Give Your Body to Science

I’ll never know who she was, the woman whose preserved head I studied as an anatomy and physiology student. With deep gratitude three decades later, I still remember examining her skin layers, skull bones, and brain matter. Donating her body to medical education was courageous.

Key takeaways:
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    Whole body donation is donating a body after death to scientific research and education.
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    Bodies are used by multiple industries like medical and forensic schools, the automobile industry, museums, and the U.S. Department of Defense.
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    Once a body is donated, the use of the body is not highly regulated by the government.
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    To be sure your remains are handled respectfully, it’s essential to research trustworthy options before deciding where to donate your body.

As a final gift to the world, whole-body donation leaves a legacy of generosity and support for scientific exploration. Learn how to give your remains to science while maintaining as much personal choice and respect as possible.

Modern realities like the Covid-19 pandemic, environmental concerns, and an aging baby boomer population have generated a growing interest in useful ways to leave a legacy after you die. Organ and tissue donation from one person can help up to 75 people waiting for a transplant. Green burial options may nourish Mother Earth and reduce carbon emissions. Donating your body to scientific research helps an untold number of people, possibly for generations.

What is whole body donation?

Whole body donation is the donation of a body after death to scientific research and education. Scientists and students may study your body as a whole or dissected into parts.

Whole body donation does not include organ donation, a separate process managed by a different system. If you are an organ donor, you are not a whole-body donor unless you register with a whole-body agency.

How are bodies used for science?

Every American has likely benefited from whole body donation.

21,000 medical students graduate annually, and each spends countless hours with a cadaver that teaches how the body works. Memorial services are often held at medical schools for the donors and their loved ones.

Surgeons use human bodies and parts to train on the latest techniques. Perhaps your knee surgeon recently practiced a new procedure on a human knee. The doctor who installed your child’s cochlear implant likely did so first on a cadaver. The paramedics who took you to the hospital may have studied a cadaver in their anatomy and physiology course.

The list continues. Your car manufacturer likely designed your vehicle based on crash research with real bodies. The police department’s forensics examiner may know the likely date of murder because he or she studied decaying bodies during their training. By using cadavers to understand various traumatic injuries, the U.S. Department of Defence improves military equipment.

How whole body donation works

In general, states in the U.S. offer three common options: give your body to a university, a state agency, or a non-transplant tissue bank (NTTB).

Many universities accept direct donations and keep the bodies on campus for medical or forensics students. Some states use government agencies to manage donations for their state institutions, typically medical schools.

Most NTTBs are for-profit companies that legally sell or rent bodies and dissected parts to institutions, companies, and sometimes the military. The programs that buy or rent bodies from the NTTBs use them for training, education, and research.

As you might imagine, NTTBs are a bit controversial, as it is legal to sell donated bodies in the U.S.

Federal law says you cannot sell your own body after you die or the body of a loved one. If you donate it to research, however, the receiving agency can sell or rent your body whole or in part.

To be clear, the organ transplant system does not allow the sale of any organ or tissue donated for transplant. Whole body donation, however, does allow brokers to receive donated bodies and sell or rent them to research and educational institutions.

Feeling a little skeptical about body donation at this point? Selling and renting bodies should give anyone pause. In 2017, Reuters published a seven-part investigative series, “The Body Trade,” exposing fraud and carelessness with bodies in the whole-body industry.

But don’t give up on the idea just yet. Trustworthy and honorable institutions do exist despite the presence of some corruption. You simply need to find the right one.

How to donate your body

Your first step is to talk with your loved ones about the idea. Many institutions cremate and return bodies to family members when the research ends. This can take up to three years, which can be hard for those grieving. In the end, however, the decision is still yours to make.

Secondly, do your research. A good place to begin is the list of U.S. schools and state agencies on The Anatomical Board of the State of Florida’s website. This is an excellent way to find a local medical school. The Anatomical Board’s mission is “to manage body donor resources in a dignified, respectful and professional manner,” and to ensure health professionals are “well-educated to enhance the health and well-being of all people.”

If you want to donate to your college alma mater, it is legal to transport your body across state lines if you don’t live in the same state as the college.

To find a trustworthy for-profit tissue bank, visit the American Association of Tissue Banks (AATB). The AATB is a non-profit organization that helps set standards on tissue donation. Out of many in the U.S., only eight non-transplant tissue banks are accredited by the AATB. You can find these by searching for accredited Non-Transplant Anatomical Material (NAM) on their website.

There are currently seven places to donate your body for forensics science. With a little online research, you can learn more about these “body farms” in Florida, Tennessee, Colorado, North Carolina, Illinois, and Texas, where two exist. If you’re looking for a cheaper, more natural burial option while also benefiting science, this could be perfect for you.

The Maxwell Museum of Anthropology or the Forensic Anthropology Center at the University of Tennessee also take skeletal donations. Both institutions use bones to study human evolution and diseases.

Once you’ve made your choice, pepper the organization with questions. Look for staff who are transparent about their practices, easy to contact, and experts in the field. If you feel they are trustworthy, read their documents carefully before registering. In the end, trust your gut. You can back out at any time.

Your next step is to register with the institution you choose. Some will allow you to request ways you’d like your body to be used for research. A few allow your loved ones to visit the research facility once your body is sent there.

After registering, it’s important to update your advance directives and inform your health proxy. Add a statement about your choice and direct your health proxy to follow the institution’s instructions.

Lastly, trust your decision. It’s admirable to give your body as an anatomical gift, and many worthy students and scientists are ready to honor your wishes.

A few facts about whole-body donation

  • Many programs pay for all or part of donation and cremation costs. Compared to other options, non-transplant tissue banks (NTTBs) tend to cover the most charges.
  • Some institutions allow you to donate your organs for transplantation before donating the rest of your body to science.
  • Depending on the research, programs may exclude donors whose bodies are very thin or who had diseases like HIV/AIDS, sepsis, or hepatitis B or C. Donors who died of physical trauma are usually excluded from donating to medical schools.
  • Military honors don’t change for veterans who donate their bodies to research. In fact, one in four donors is a veteran.
  • Most programs accept donors aged 18 and older, so there is often no upper age limit. A few programs receive children’s bodies with heartfelt gratitude and respect.
  • In the past, many religions resisted whole body donations. Today, the practice is largely supported and even encouraged.
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