One of the last gifts you can conceivably give is yourself — in other words, donating your body to science. Becoming a learning opportunity for researchers or students might be appealing, but handing yourself over to “science” sounds pretty vague, and knowing who to contact or what to ask about the process could seem daunting, particularly if someone doesn’t know anyone else who has donated before.
“I think that body donation is still a fairly unusual choice of disposition,” says Brandi Schmitt, the anatomical services director for University of California Health. If you're considering this option, here are some tips on finding the donation opportunity that’s just right for you.
Finding the Perfect Fit
When it comes to talking about “body donation,” the term generally refers to giving more than individual organs or tissues. If someone wants to, say, make their lungs, eyes or other individual tissues available after death, federal organizations help connect people to the necessary resources. Entire body donation, however, typically includes universities that train medical workers or have forensic research facilities.
Gennifer Goad is the body donation program coordinator at the University of South Florida Institute of Forensic Anthropology and Applied Sciences. Often nicknamed “body farms,” the institutions have featured in documentaries and come up as plot points in murder mysteries, and Goad thinks about half of those who reach out to ask about donation protocols hear about it from books, articles or TV. But even if it turns out that the forensic center isn’t the right fit for what a donor might want to happen with their gift, Goad can put people in touch with other donation opportunities in the area.
Unlike with organs, full-body gifts lack a single national center that coordinates donations. Chapters of the Funeral Consumers Alliance can provide local information and resources about donation protocols, and some states have organizations called anatomical boards that direct gifts throughout the area, Schmitt says.
Otherwise, when finding a reputable institution on your own through a good ol’ web search, look for programs affiliated with a university. Schmitt says there are about 130 different donation programs across the U.S. and at least 100 of them have websites. Many have detailed Q&A sections, which are a great start for understanding how each donation center works, what they allow and what they require — important information to gather at every site, seeing as every location handles donations differently.
After finding a program that accepts donations near you, figure out what exactly happens with your gift. “Be sure that your wishes for your anatomical gift match the mission of the donor program that you want to give you,” Schmitt says. “If there's not enough information for you to think you know what will happen with your body for use or for ultimate disposition, that's something that you need to ask the education program about.” In medical programs, body donations often help train nurses, doctors and other health practitioners and provide a low-risk way to practice surgery. Bodies might also help develop new surgical devices or artificial joints. In forensic facilities, donors simulate outdoor crime scenes and burials for researchers or law enforcement education.
Knowing all that might happen with your body doesn’t necessarily mean you can dictate exactly what eventually does happen. Institutions might outline the range of experiences or uses your gift might go towards, and you can agree to the whole list or walk away from the donation. Others provide a list of possible uses and a couple other scenarios you can choose to opt in to if you’d like, Schmitt says — you might allow or refuse permission to take photos of you or your organs, for example, or for facilities to keep samples of your tissue for longer periods of time.
Some accommodate more specific requests. Forensic facilities, for example, often have outside research areas for studying or learning from decomposition or wildlife scavenging. If someone is uncomfortable with these or other study conditions, Goad will meet requests for bodies to stay enclosed in a cage if outside, or for the facility to use a gift only for work that involves a complete burial.
Also learn if or how your donation will be returned to loved ones. Some medical institutions cremate remains and return them to family while others do not. At forensic facilities specifically, your gift is permanent. Skeletons are also a valuable source of information, and the University of South Florida center keeps donations forever — family cannot get them back.
Nailing Down Practical Details
Besides your degree of comfort with how your body is used, it’s also important to learn how a donation program handles logistics like cost, transportation and official documents. Some might provide free transportation within a certain distance, for example, or connect donors and their families with funeral homes familiar with the donation protocol. Remember that plans could change in ways that are outside your control. Goad points out that Florida is a popular winter destination for seniors. If someone is considering donating to the forensic facility, they might want to coordinate a different plan with a donor program near their summer home, since transporting a body from New York to Florida is expensive.
Institutions are also sometimes particular about the status or conditions of the donors they will take, and might make the final call soon after death, so be aware that your intended gift might not pan out. Potential donors with a positive test result for infectious diseases like Hepatitis B or C might not be accepted, and traumatic deaths might also prevent someone from donating.
And last but not least, tell family, loved ones and maybe your doctor about your donation plans. Ultimately, you won’t be there to carry out the protocol for safely delivering your body to its final destination, so it’s up to others to know who to call. Losing a loved one is emotional — and could be more so if people learn there might not be a traditional burial or a return of the ashes.
“Let them know the kind of research or program that you're going to be in so the family is not surprised,” Goad says. “Even though you do this for yourself, your decisions even with end of life care and you know, your final destination also impacts them.”