What Happens When You Donate Your Body to Science

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 might get shipped all over the country!) Read on for more fascinating body donation facts.

Photo: Rembrandt / WikiMedia Commons / Public Domain

  • You Don't Necessarily Get to Decide Where You'll End Up

    You Don't Necessarily Get to Decide Where You'll End Up
    Photo: techbint / flickr / CC-BY 2.0

    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

    You Might Become a Crash Test Dummy
    Photo: Kevin Baird / flickr / CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0

    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.”