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Donating Your Body to Science: Things to Consider

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Many people elect to be organ donors – that is, they pre-select the option of donating their organs to a living person upon their death. But there is another program that enables you to donate your entire body to medical study at the time of your passing. Donating your body to science is a non-transplant option that has become an important way to expand and enhance the teaching and practice of medicine. Donating a body to science after death – also known as whole body donation or anatomical donation – makes this critical education possible. But there are several important considerations when contemplating this step, including the actual process of how to donate your body to science, the financial ramifications of your donation, and the disadvantages of donating your body to science.

How Does Donating Your Body to Science Work?

Why People Decide to Donate Their Body to Science

There are a multitude of reasons that prompt people to commit their bodies to medical science after they pass. Some of the benefits of this donation include the following:

  • Educational institutions use whole body donations to explain anatomy and physiology to medical students, to give exposure to and prepare future healthcare providers for real-life situations.
  • Continuing Education. Active doctors use whole body donations throughout their practice to stay current with the continual advancements and medical breakthroughs in their specialties. Likewise, practicing surgeons rely on whole body donations to continually hone their surgical techniques by exploring better ways to perform procedures.
  • Medical Research. Researchers use whole body donations to investigate disease impact, causes, and cures. Having the entire cadaver helps facilitate a whole-body disease process – something they can’t study with organ donation alone.
  • Emergency Medicine. First responders and emergency medical technicians use whole body donations for hands-on experience in the latest life-saving techniques, refreshing their knowledge to benefit patients in their communities. Forensic investigations use human bodies to help them identify the time of death by studying the decay that occurs to a body over a length of time and to help them learn how a person died.
  • Financial Benefits. People often wonder, “Do you get paid for donating your body to science?” While you will NOT be paid for the donation itself, you will typically avoid having to pay certain final expenses like cremation or burial costs. Some donation programs pay for the cost to transport the body (within a certain distance) and the cremation (if the program is one that eventually returns remains to loved ones).

High-Level View of the Donation Process

There are three basic “steps” to whole body donation:

  1. You register in advance with a specific recipient program.
  2. You make your registration and wishes for donation known to your next of kin.
  3. Upon your death, your next of kin contacts your selected program; if your body meets their criteria, they will coordinate the collection.
  4. The program utilizes your body for its study purposes, then cremates the remains and returns it to your next of kin.

To donate your body to science, you should pre-register as a whole body donor because some states and donation programs require individual donors themselves to make prior arrangements before death; the decision cannot be made by a power of attorney. This can usually be done by contacting a local medical school (visit Body Donation Programs in the United States for a starting point) or through private donor organizations (Humanity Gifts Registry, Research for Life, and Science Care are some of the larger options in the US). Many programs that accept whole body donations are affiliated with specific conditions and work to promote research into their specialty, such as cancer research, Alzheimer's research, and research into improving surgical techniques.

Typically, whole body donation is a no-cost option that includes the transportation of the body, cremation, return of cremated remains, and sometimes the filing of the death certificate as well. In some cases, the family will need to cover these expenses to be reimbursed by the program.

After the program has completed its research on the whole body, any unused tissue and remains will be cremated and returned to the family. This typically occurs within a month or two after donation. Depending on the specific circumstances of the donor recipient, however, this could be up to several years later. The wide range of timeframes is due to the embalming process, the research itself, and the number of donors the program is working with at the time.

Disadvantages of Donating Your Body to Science

While whole body donation is very helpful for medical and scientific pursuits, it might not be the right option for you, depending on a number of considerations.

No Open Casket

With whole body donation, open casket viewing is typically not an option. A memorial service can still be a touching honor of the deceased, with or without the presence of the body. But if an open casket is an important part of the funeral service and grieving process for you and your loved ones, yet you still want to do something beneficent, you might want to consider organ donation instead.

Extended Grieving Period

Before a body can be used for medical study, it must be anatomically prepared and preserved. The anatomical preparation process currently recommended requires arterial preservation. After arterial preservation, the donor's remains are typically isolated for a specified period of time to prevent the transmittal of harmful microorganisms. After isolation, the body is studied. For medical students, this could be a semester or a yearlong course; for specific research, the study might be longer.

This means that it might take as long as several years for the family to receive the cremated remains. At that point, your loved ones will need to handle disposition, which could be another emotional time for those involved.

Known Difficulties or Issues in the Process

In the US, the federal government does not regulate whole body donation through licensure, inspection, registry, or tracking, nor do many states. For this reason, potential donors need to verify the procedure in their own state and do some serious due diligence when selecting a program. This can make it challenging to find a donation center – or to have 100% confidence in choosing whole body donation. The American Association of Tissue Banks offers optional accreditation for donation programs, which is a good place to start verifying the legitimacy of a donor program, but this isn’t required by law.

In addition, you might not be able to find a whole body donor recipient in your area. Many programs only accept bodies from within the state, while others only cover transportation costs within a limited area.

Also, registering for whole body donation is not part of your medical record – meaning that medical personnel will not be aware of your donor arrangements. Your loved ones and next of kin will need to know your wishes and carry them out.

High Rejection Rates

Keep in mind that not everyone who signs up will be accepted. And even if you have completed donor registration, there is always the possibility that your program of choice may decline your body once you pass. The main reason for rejection is that programs don’t need any more bodies at the time.

While many donation programs accept those with cancer, heart disease, arthritis, diabetes, and other chronic conditions, there are a variety of circumstances that could exclude donation:

  • Age (many programs have minimum age requirements)
  • Contagious diseases including HIV/AIDS, hepatitis B, hepatitis C, and tuberculosis
  • Extremely high or low body mass index (BMI)
  • Morbid obesity or extreme malnutrition
  • The state in which the person died
  • Significant family conflict at the time of or immediately following the death
  • Poor condition or pathology of the remains that prevents safe preparation, storage, or study
  • Inability to place with a current project at the time of screening
  • No current need for donors (i.e., your selected facility is at maximum capacity)

If Rejected, What Will the Family Do Next?

If the donor program declines to accept the body at the time of death, it becomes the responsibility of the next of kin to make final arrangements. This can be extremely stressful, as this is a time-sensitive issue. This can also place undue financial burden on the family to cover final expenses they did not anticipate.

Be sure that, if you choose to donate your body to science, you have a backup plan for your final dispensation in case it turns out that being a donor is not an option.

Is a Final Expense Policy a Better Option?

If financial reasons are your main impetus for considering donating your body to science after your death, keep in mind that free cremation services – if even offered – represent only a small portion of the total expenses your loved ones will incur.

Reasons Why a Small Policy Can Be a Better Option

Typically, whole body donation has no associated costs, and it’s true that it can help you save some final expenses. However, if you choose to have a funeral before the donation or have the donor’s body buried after the donation, there will be funeral home expenses associated with the donation. The donation program will not cover these expenses – they are solely the responsibility of the donor or the donor’s loved ones.

Also, remember that final expenses aren’t the only costs that families incur upon the death of a loved one. Those left behind must still cover unpaid bills, such as mortgages, car payments, and medical or hospital bills. And if the deceased was a significant breadwinner in the family, the loss of their wages will cause financial hardship.

That’s why final expense insurance – also known as burial or funeral insurance – is a smart choice. This type of whole life policy is specifically meant to cover medical bills and funeral expenses when you pass. Most final expense plans have these features:

  • Cash value – the insured may even be able to take out a loan on the policy
  • Fixed premiums – rates won’t increase as long as they’re paid
  • Simple application process – a medical exam isn’t usually required, just some health questions
  • Fast approvals – coverage can often be issued in days
  • Affordable rates – find a plan that works for you


If you’re interested in making sure that your loved ones aren’t saddled with financial burdens after you pass, submit a free quote with Lincoln Heritage for up to $20,000 to help cover your final expenses.