What happens when you donate your body to science? Where do your donated organs go? It depends, but it’s definitely an unpredictable process. You could be embalmed, frozen, “plastinated,” or – if you so choose – just left to rot. Donating your body “to science” means just that: it will be used to further scientific and medical knowledge in general. So if you’re a control freak – even in death – it might not be for you.
Donating your body after death inherently means trusting that the medical community will respect your remains and the feelings of your loved ones. It doesn’t always work out that way, unfortunately, as it is a largely unregulated industry. (There are people out there selling body parts for profit, believe it or not. It’s not pretty.) But dealing directly with a nearby medical school will ensure that your remains are in good hands, helping to teach the next generation of master surgeons. (Just don’t count on your body staying in one piece or being housed in one place.
You Don't Necessarily Get to Decide Where You'll End Up
If you use a so-called “body broker” to donate your body to science, as CNN points out, you won’t get a say in where your body will end up. The good thing about body brokers (such as Science Care, Anatomy Gifts Registry, and BioGift Anatomical in the US) is they’re affordable: your family won’t be on the hook for transportation costs to the facility, or for cremation costs once your cadaver has done its job.
The bad thing – if this sort of thing concerns you – is that your parts could go to a number of places. If you use the non-profit Illinois Anatomical Association, for example, your body could be divided up and sent to various medical schools, as IAA head Paul Dudek explained to Al Jazeera: “When we do part a body … maybe [we’ll] send the torso to Northwestern for their breast reconstruction training program. We may send the brain to the Alzheimer’s program at Loyola.” Some body brokers, however, allow you to somewhat limit where your body could go, but it’s still a toss-up in the end. “Your intent is to donate to science,” Kristin Dorn of Science Care told CNN, “not a specific research project.”
Your Body Will Be Studied for Up to Two Years
As Natasha Vargas-Cooper reports, bodies donated to medical schools in the US “can undergo an infinite number of dissections for roughly two years.” This means that if one of your organs is removed for study, it’s not disposed of after; it’s simply “put back inside the cadaver” after the students are done with it.
To study muscles, bones, or ligaments, for example, Vargas-Cooper says an incision is made “so the skin can be used as a flap” and “can be opened and closed several times over.” Your body essentially becomes a museum exhibit with an expiration date.
You Will Be Anonymous
Medical students and researchers studying your body won’t know your name and background – unless they choose, if possible, to meet your family after you are cremated. Even the people cremating you, in fact, won’t know who you are. As author and former mortician Caitlin Doughty recounts in The Atlantic, the paperwork is pretty vague: “The sheets didn’t give us their names or where they were from, but did provide a whole list of superfluous fun facts like ‘Head No.1 is allergic to shellfish, tomatoes, morphine, and strawberries,’ and ‘Head No. 2 has brain cancer and is prone to hay fever.’”
At the University of Cambridge, families can attend a memorial service at the end of a term and meet the students that studied their deceased loved ones. It is only then that they learn their real names and backgrounds. “All year you had known they were a real person,’ student Joe O’Sullivan told The Spectator in April 2016, “but you didn’t really understand that until you read their name and about their life. There were lots of tears.”
Your Body Is Tested for Communicable Diseases
Even if your living body passed the rigorous screening process required to become a “deceased donor,” you could still get rejected once you die. As Medical Daily reports, only about 30 percent make the cut at BioGift Anatomical, for example, a body donation company based out of Portland, OR. But even those “lucky” few can still get rejected if their cadavers test positive for hepatitis B, hepatitis C, syphilis, or HIV.
Other factors that could get you rejected include traumatic injury to tissues or dramatic weight gain. So if you really want to donate your body to science, it’s important to die at a relatively healthy weight, in a non-traumatic way, free of communicable diseases.
Some Medical Schools Will Pay for Your Funeral Costs
Why would someone choose to donate their body to science? There are many compelling reasons, but perhaps the most pragmatic is to save your family the cost of your funeral. As Vice reports, The London Anatomy Office at King’s College London, for example, will provide, free of charge, a “rudimentary funeral” after your body is released.
Coordinator Emma Cole says the medical school offers a “quick ten-minute service” with a chaplain, but it can’t be personalized. Families can also meet the students at the end of the term that worked on their loved one’s cadaver if they think that will provide a sense of closure.
You Might Become a Crash Test Dummy
Wayne State University uses donated bodies as crash test dummies, but also to help design crash test dummies. It sounds gruesome, but chairman of biomedical engineering Albert King tells The Wall Street Journal that “it’s not gory” and at least a dozen lives are saved for every one cadaver used to perform the tests. “We’re preventing a lot of disabling injuries, head injuries, foot injuries and the suffering that many people go through,” King says.
Why use real bodies? As The Straight Dope reports, “some experts question whether the dummies accurately reproduce the damage done to a real human head.”
Your Body Could Get Frozen
Doug Gillespie of Newcastle University in Australia tells Vice that some donated bodies are sealed in plastic bags and immediately frozen. This allows the bodies to be “as lifelike as possible,” unlike the hardening that happens to the tissue when a body is embalmed. Surgeons-in-training prefer so-called “fresh-frozen” bodies to the stiffer embalmed bodies.
Frozen, un-embalmed bodies don’t last as long, but some parts may be “kept indefinitely for use in teaching, training, scientific studies and research,” according to a University of Adelaide brochure.
Your Body May Get Embalmed
Just like when you land in a regular old funeral home, donating your body to a medical school could mean getting embalmed (freezing and plastination are other options). Professor Chris Briggs with the University of Melbourne says the fluid “permeates your entire body, disinfecting, fixing and moisturizing tissues, all of which aids subsequent dissection.” It sounds crazy, but one reason there’s a weight limit for donating your body (typically 250-300 lbs.) is because embalming can add 100-150 lbs. to your overall body weight.
Bodies that heavy can be hard for students and technicians to move, and at some schools, a body that heavy simply won’t fit on the storage trays.
Your Body Could Get Plastinated
If a medical school want to keep parts of you “preserved” for research indefinitely, plastination is a viable option. As Vice explains, plastination occurs when fluid from a dissected part of you is drawn out and replaced by plastic, “leaving a real but semi-plasticized model.” Med schools then use the model “indefinitely” for “teaching, training, scientific studies or research.”
Plastination is also how the widely-known traveling Body Worlds museum exhibits are possible – another option to consider if you want to donate your body to science. Body Worlds technicians, according to CNN, “remove fat and water, ‘impregnate’ your corpse with rubber silicone and position it into a frozen pose.”
You Can Donate Just Your Skeleton
If you’d like to donate just your skeleton for use in an osteology lab, that’s an option, too. The University of New Mexico’s Laboratory of Human Osteology will accept your un-embalmed bones for free, as long as your family pays to get you there. Within ten days, “the skeletal elements are rendered and dried” and then moved to the “locked laboratory repository, where each individual is stored in an archival container.” The rest of you gets cremated.
Who gets to check out your bones? Your family members can visit them anytime, as long as they’re not being used by faculty members or graduate students for “legitimate, non-destructive” research projects.
Your Face and Genitals Will Be Covered During Research
Unless your face and genitals are part of the research being done, medical schools will cover them up out of respect for the deceased. Natasha Vargas-Cooper writing for The Awl reports that at an anonymous medical school in California, “the cadavers have a thick green opaque sheet that covers their face and genitals.” The sheet reportedly “eases a lot of the student’s initial queasiness.”
The Wall Street Journal says that when bodies are donated to Wayne State University in Detroit for “ impact-tolerance tests to help design crash-test dummies,” the heads are covered “as a sign of respect.” Other schools also hold memorial services and “blessing” ceremonies to show respect.
Your Spine Could Get Sold on the Black Market
As USA Today reported in 2006, “more than 16,800 families have been represented in lawsuits claiming loved ones’ body parts were stolen for profit” between 1985 and 2006. So there’s a slim chance that your spine could get sold on the black market. Al Jazeera reported in 2015 that one Illinois for-profit “body broker” was accused by the FBI of “selling body parts infected with HIV, hepatitis, sepsis and other diseases for use by unwitting doctors and researchers” among other heinous crimes.
How can this happen? It doesn’t help that in the US, “the trade in body parts not intended for transplant in another human is unregulated.”
You Could Get Enlisted
The U.S. military uses donated bodies to research explosive devices, in case you want to enlist in the afterlife. Seven cadavers were blown up in Army “land mine experiments” in 2002, which made headlines worldwide. Tulane University’s Willed Body Program inadvertently sold the Army the bodies, thinking they were instead going to medical schools. This raised some tough ethical questions.
A philosophy professor interviewed by the Associated Press put it this way: “Imagine if your mother had said all her life that she wanted her body to be used for science, and then her body was used to test land mines.”