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How to donate your body to science

When it comes to end-of-life planning, there are many factors to consider in order to make plans that are right for you. One important question to ask yourself is what kind of legacy you want to leave. Some people — especially those who’ve lost a loved one to a disease — find comfort in the idea that their body could be used to advance medical science. Every year 20,000 people in the US will decide to donate their body to science. 

If this is something that interests you, you’re probably wondering how and where you can donate your body to science. Keep reading to learn what you need to know in order to decide if donating your body to science is the right choice for you. 

What happens when you donate your body to science?

Bodies are usually donated to medical universities, where students will use them to learn about anatomy, signs of illness, and to practice surgery techniques. Your body could be used to advance research for a cure for a certain disease or to test how a new medical implant may work. 

Another option is to donate your body to a forensic science facility, where it will be used to provide valuable insights for law enforcement and medical examiners. 

No matter how science professionals use your remains, the end result is deeper knowledge and advancement in that particular field. 

Is donating organs the same as donating a body?

No. You may have signed up to be an organ donor when you renewed your driver’s license, but that’s not the same thing as donating your body to science. When an organ donor dies, any healthy organs such as the lungs, liver, or heart may be given to someone in need of a transplant. Donating to science means giving your whole body to help advance medical or forensic science. Like with organ donation, donating your body to medical science is also a way to help others after you die. 

You may or may not be able to be both an organ donor and donate the rest of your body to science. If both are important to you, you’ll want to ask this question when evaluating potential places to donate your body. 

What disqualifies you from donating your body to science?

When you sign up to offer your body to science, the organization will do a medical assessment to find out if you’re a good fit. They will ask about your health history and surgeries, and use of drugs and medications. Criteria for accepting your body differ amongst organizations, but some common reasons a body may be disqualified include: 

  • Infectious or contagious diseases 
  • Extreme emancipation or obesity, making the body unsuitable for study
  • Poor condition from traumatic death or autopsy 
  • Objection from next of kin

One thing that won’t be a factor is age. Unlike with organ donation, your body can be useful to scientific study no matter what age you are when you die. 

How much does it cost to donate a body to science?

You do not need to pay in order to donate your body to science. There will also be no payment to your next of kin from the organization that receives the donation. However, while there is no cost to donate a body, there may be transportation costs. Many institutions offer free transportation within a certain area, while others may charge for the return of cremated remains. 

Will remains be returned to the family? 

This depends on the organization. If the body goes to a forensic science facility, no remains will be returned, as skeletons are also important in forensic research. Some universities may return cremated remains after the studies are completed. This usually requires the donor’s family to pay shipping costs. If it’s important to your family to have remains returned, be sure to ask the organization that you’re considering about their policy.  

How do I donate my body to science?

When it comes to donating organs, there are federal organizations that help pair donors to potential recipients. There is no federal counterpart for whole body donation. There are, however, accredited non-transplant tissue banks like Science Care and MedCure, which can handle your body donation for you as long as you reside in a state they serve. 

If you prefer to find a suitable donation location on your own, a good place to start is by assembling a list of places where you can donate your body. Ask for referrals from friends, doctors, or local chapters of the Funeral Consumers Alliance. Otherwise, search the internet for medical universities or reputable medical non-profit organizations (such as the Mayo Clinic) near you.

When looking for places to donate your body, there are many things to consider. Ask yourself questions like:

  • Do I prefer my body to go to medical or forensic science?
  • Do I care if my body is used for surgery vs research? 
  • What are the costs, if any?
  • What is the process to register?
  • What consent do I need from my next of kin to make sure my wishes are honored?

Most organizations can’t, or won’t, guarantee how your body will be used — they cannot predict what their needs will be at the time you eventually pass. 

Once you’ve decided on a place to donate your body, fill out their forms and questionnaires. From there, you’ll be instructed on next steps. After your application has been accepted, you’ll be provided with information to share with your family about what to do once you pass. 

Plan ahead and talk to your family

If you’ve decided to donate your body to science, it’s important to make plans well ahead of your death. The application procedure takes time, and while some organizations will let your kin donate your body, others will not. That means it’s important to make arrangements while you can sign a consent form as the prospective donor. 

Not only that, but for many organizations, if a next of kin opposes the donation, it won’t take place. This means you need to talk to your loved ones about your end-of-life wishes and make sure they understand why leaving this legacy is important to you.

Talking to family about your end of life can be difficult, but by planning ahead and starting conversations early, you’ll be able to find peace knowing your family understands your wishes and will carry them out when the time comes. 

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