**Time for this post? Reading…10 minutes. Thinking time…none to lots.
There are only a few ways for your survivors to deal with your body when you’ve left it. A body can be kept intact and buried. It can be disintegrated—by fire or by alkaline water (the latter permitted in only some jurisdictions at this time). And…
There is a third way—donation to medical education.
I had never thought of doing this until last summer when I began researching conscious dying. Two things I learned from widely different sources came together and, suddenly, body donation seemed like a possibility.
In her TEDx talk, Rochelle Martin gave us four action steps. The last one was to choose in death what we value in life. That hovered in the back of my mind…
Then I was reading about body donation and learned that it’s a widely held myth that donated bodies are used for research and therefore must somehow be medically unique. Truth is, cadavers are used primarily for education—a practical way that medical students can learn how the body works and practice surgical techniques before being faced with a real live patient.
This knowledge, coupled with the fact that I’ve always valued practical education, got me looking further to see what’s involved in body donation and if I would qualify.
Exploring the possibility…
I figured my best bet for finding information was at a local university with a medical school. The University of Calgary website does indeed have all the information I needed to assess whether body donation is for me.
Then, for purposes of more general research on the topic, I searched five other Canadian universities to get a sense of the similarities and differences in body donation programs across the country.
What I learned…
“Body Donation Program” is the usual term, but both the University of Alberta and Newfoundland’s Memorial University refer to theirs as the Anatomical Gifts Program, and the University of Western Ontario calls it a Body Bequeathal Program,
They all deal with bodies from a limited geographic area because of the urgency for transferring bodies quickly, usually within 48 to 72 hours. Bodies for donation must not be embalmed.
Programs typically cover the cost of body transportation to their facility if it is within their prescribed area, and they deal with the body when it has served its purpose. At the University of Western Ontario,
Body bequeathal is the donation of one’s whole body after death. …the entire body is used for study and once the learning is complete, the cremated remains are returned to the family or interred by Western University in London, Ontario.
Respect and appreciation for the gift…
They all emphasize respect and value for bodies that are donated. This statement from the University of Alberta Anatomical Gifts Program is typical:
Anatomical gifts are used for teaching courses in human anatomy to medical, dental and allied health professional students. The course helps to familiarize students with anatomical relationships in the body that are essential for understanding the progression and treatment of human diseases.
Anatomical donations are regarded by the medical community as precious gifts to medical education. Donors and their families can be assured their contribution is greatly appreciated by both students and faculty. All anatomical donations are treated with utmost respect.
And the donor’s identity is not revealed, as the program brochure from McGill University explains:
Body donation is an anonymous gesture. Personal identification of the body is used by and accessible to only the Director and Administrator of the Body Donor Program. Researchers, technicians, and students working with the bodies do not have access to identification information.
None of the universities will accept bodies which have had organs removed. The University of Calgary says:
Our program strongly supports all individuals who chose to donate their organs, and we encourage all those interested to register for both programs. At the time of death the acceptance decision will be made by each program based on eligibility criteria. The removal of internal organs and tissues (excluding cornea & sclera from the eyes) makes your body unsuitable for our educational needs.
Even if they have accepted a signed statement of intent to donate, all programs reserve the right to make a final determination about the suitability of a body depending on its condition at time of death. The following list of exclusions from the University of British Columbia is similar to most. They will not take a body with:
– Infectious diseases (e.g. HIV/AIDS, Hepatitis B or C)
– Severe antibiotic resistant infections (e.g. MRSA, VRE)
– Extensive bodily trauma/open wounds/recent surgery
– Suicide or traumatic death
– Autopsy or Coroner’s case
– Delay in notification of death
– Most organ donations (except corneal transplant)
– Other conditions at the discretion of the body program
Spoiler alert: This means you must have a Plan B for body disposition.
Exploring body donation for yourself…
As you can see, general principles are the same but details will differ between institutions. If you’re considering body donation, here are some guidelines for checking it out.
- Do a web search for the closest university that has a medical school, Insert your university name in the blank: _________________ body donation.
- Read through their information pages. Pay particular attention to eligibility requirements such as minimum age and body size.
- If you meet these criteria, look for details about their application process—application form, consent form, family notification form, etc.
- If you decide to go ahead, discuss your intention with your family. Some universities will not take the donation if your family contests it, even if you had filled out the form.
- Complete the appropriate forms and submit them as directed. Remember that you can rescind this bequest at any time.
- Investigate alternative body disposal arrangements in case the condition of your body at death makes it unsuitable for donation. In that case, your family is responsible for body disposition.
- Put all your actions and decisions in writing and give them to your next of kin and the executor of your will. Several of the universities recommend that you also advise your family doctor that to you have made arrangements for body donation.
Disposition of our body is a personal decision for each of us. We all have deep-seated reasons why one method or another is unappealing or downright repulsive. There is no right and wrong here. The point is that we need to be aware of the options so we can choose what suits us best given what’s available where we live. It’s an important step toward dying in peace.