A Final Good Deed

For some time now I've had in mind what I want to have done with my body after I die. I know, it seems morbid, but really it's a great opportunity to make a difference even after death. The thing is, while I've told Butch (my awesome husband) and have made it clear that I want to give my body to science, I haven't followed through to make it easy for him if something unexpected happens.

My, this is so cheery as I face my 42nd birthday (March 2, gifts and Amazon gift certificates welcome! HA! Just kidding, cash is preferred. :P )

The other day a friend of mine on Facebook posted about how wasteful cemeteries are. He wrote, "Cemeteries are not a good idea. Natural resources are wasted, financial strain is put on the less fortunate, mass plots of land are deforested for coffins and burial space, names are forgotten, space is further limited, more natural resources are wasted, and religion is reinforced. We must critically think about alternatives." I agree!

So I commented about donating your body to science and he asked how to go about it. He'd never heard of it. Then I wondered, do most people not know about this final charitable act? I should find out more for myself and others and then write about it!

First, you have 2 options for donating your body after death. One is organ donation, which you can do through your state, when you renew your driver's license (I was able to sign up online). You can help up to 8 people with your donation, how cool is that? Some of those people will get a new lease on life because of you.

Did you know even an 80 year old can be an organ donor? So make sure you have your organ donor card.

The problem is, you have to die under rather specific circumstances to be able to be an organ donor. You have to basically die where you can be ventilated immediately. So if you die at home or in an accident, unless an ambulance can start ventilating you, your organs can't be used. Only 1-3% of people die in a way that they can be a donor.

UPDATE: There is actually one program, Science Care,  that lets you both donate your organs for transplant then the rest of your body for science. See below for more information. This is the program Butch and I are looking to sign up with.

In some of these cases you could still do option 2, which is donate your whole body to science.

There are 2 ways a body is used when donated this way, either for education or research. While you can save up to 8 lives with organ donation, this whole body donation can save countless lives by training potential doctors and/or helping people do important research.

One thing is, usually if you donate your organs, you can't donate the rest of your body to science. They want the whole package. One exception is the corneas usually, but find out for sure and make sure your loved ones know so your wishes can be carried out if possible.

Another thing to keep in mind is there are some conditions that will mean that your body is not accepted. Some places don't take morbidly obese or someone with AIDs for example. Check with the program you choose.

Google "donate my body to science" or "willed body program" plus your state. Because you want to be "fresh" when you are donated, you will want to stay within a decent radius of your home area.

If you want to know what is done with the bodies, I recommend Stiff by Mary Roach. I haven't read the book but I've heard her interviewed and I think the book might be very interesting. Anyway, I won't go into details, but the bodies are handled with respect.

Some programs will cremate the final remains and send the ashes back to your loved ones. Sometimes this is their protocol, sometimes you have to request it in writing, so if that's important to you, find out when you sign your papers. Even if you don't sign up ahead of time, you can still have your body donated to science by your family. But do them a favor and take care of it ahead of time to make the process easier for them and quicker.

Most programs don't let you designate who or what type of research is done to your body. You pick the program or school that will suit your wishes and then they decide how to use your body when they get it.

And it has to be a donation, in accordance with the Uniform Anatomical Gift Act (UAGA). You can't sell your body or parts for any reason.

In my area, there are 2 universities that accept willed bodies, WVU and Marshall, for education. Here is a list of US Body Donation Programs.

I am particular to having my body used for research, though, which is a bit more challenging. For that, I've found 3 companies that handle bodies: (UPDATED)

  • Science Care covers all expenses. It is one of the only programs to allow you to donate your organs for transplant first, and it is also one of the only programs that is accredited with the AATB. It's also accredited with the BBB.

  • BioGift covers all expenses, accredited with the BBB.

  • LifeQuest Anatomical covers all expenses, accredited with the BBB.

Here are some other resources:

  • The Straight Dope (describes what is done with your body, along with other information)

  • AATB: American Association of Tissue Banks (link is to the search engine for Accredited Banks. The AATB sets ethical guidelines to respect the family and the body)

I know it's not fun to think about such things, but imagine helping others even after you've died. Plus, if you find a university or organization that will have your remains cremated afterward, you are easing the burden from your family. Not to mention all the lives you can help or save by doing this generous and thoughtful act, nearly effortlessly.


  1. I'm an organ donor, but I'm secretly hoping that the cryogenics field has a major breakthrough.

  2. Good for you for being an organ donor!
    I don't know if it's just confirmation bias but I seem to know a lot of atheists and science lovers who are either going to go through with or wishing they could afford cryogenics.

  3. Another organ donor - in some states it is as easy as signing the back of your driver's license.

  4. Thanks, Tomato. Yes, I'd heard that. I'm glad you mentioned it. It's not the case here in WV but I know other states make it that easy, which is very cool. :)

  5. In some states* it's the other way around.

    * nations

  6. You mean you have to opt out? Wow, that's cool.

  7. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/04/27/new-york-to-be-first-orga_n_554234.html

    I was specifically referring to Belgium and Spain, but according to that article it's actually the case in as many as 24 European countries.

    That said, as a Dutch citizen (where we have an opt-in system) I imagine I'm probably opted out of the Belgian system. I'm not quite sure of the specifics of such international relations; I might be opted in as a Belgian resident.

    Personally I never opted in. The idea isn't a bad one, but the propaganda they showed to convince us to opt in disgusted me so much at the time (when I was 15/16ish) that I certainly didn't feel like trying to extrapolate some proper reasons from all the fallacies.

  8. Thanks for the link and the information Frans. :)

  9. If you have a Living Will or Advanced Directive for your medical care, it is important to note your desire to be an organ donor there. Further, you may need to make it clear this is your wish even over the objections of other family members. If you are not able to give consent, it will fall to your family, and (I hear) it is not uncommon for family members to object and halt the donation, even if the decedent previously legally consented. Make sure your family is on board for this so they are not surprised, or make it clear to them your consent has legal precedence over their objections. You may want to assign a power of attorney to a trusted individual in the event you are incapacitated.

  10. That's good advice, Tomato. Thank you.

  11. First, thank you for writing an article that addresses both whole body donation and organ donation. I appreciate you wanting to spread the word of this type of donation.

    Though there are vast differences between organ donation and whole body donation, both are incredibly important to furthering medical research and education and in saving lives. I work for a whole body donation program, Science Care (www.sciencecare.com), and we are one of the few programs of our kind that allows organ donors to also be whole body donors. There are truly immense benefits to society of doing both and I hope more and more people begin to see the value in organ and whole body donation.

    Being in this industry, I can tell you that donation is an absolutely amazing gift and we are so grateful for the people who donate so generously. It is so helpful to future generations of doctors and researchers.

    One thing I will caution folks about is to make sure and do your research about whole body donation programs. We recommend only signing up with a program that holds to the highest quality and safety standards and, at the least, has been accredited by the American Association of Tissue Banks. You can see the full list of accredited non-transplant tissue banks on their website: www.aatb.org. This is really the only way to ensure that you are donating to a legitimate and ethical organization.

  12. I have had a problem with donation ever since the Red Cross started to refuse blood donations from monogamous gay men but will accept blood from polygamous others. I know that this makes no sense. I should not reat irrationally to irrationality.

  13. Hello Julie,

    Thank you so much for commenting with information and a link to Science Care. I think your company is the only program that allows both kinds of donation and I'm going to order an information packet. I am glad you brought up accreditation. The other two organizations I looked up and linked to above were part of the BBB but they didn't say they were accredited by the AATB. That's very helpful to know to look for that. I didn't know it was an option.
    I also noticed on your website that you accept more kinds of donations (people with more conditions when they die) than some of the other companies, which means more people would be eligible.
    Thanks again! I'm going to add your company to the links above.

  14. That is pretty ridiculous, Hunt, you're right.

  15. Organ donation aside, you still have to do something with the body. You might be interested in the Green Burial movement. Let it feed the critters and plant a tree over it, that's my choice.

  16. That's cool! I would have thought something like a green burial would be illegal. Thanks for sharing this, Uzza.

    But if you donate your body to science they cremate what can't be used at their expense and send the ashes to your loved ones (at least all the companies I looked at do).