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 Don't Necessarily Get to Decide Where You'll End Up
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
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
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
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
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
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.”
Your Body Could Get Frozen
Frozen, un-embalmed bodies don’t last as long, but some parts may be “kept indefinitely for use in teaching, training, scientific studies and research,” according to a University of Adelaide brochure.
Your Body May Get Embalmed
Bodies that heavy can be hard for students and technicians to move, and at some schools, a body that heavy simply won’t fit on the storage trays.
Your Body Could Get Plastinated
Plastination is also how the widely-known traveling Body Worlds museum exhibits are possible – another option to consider if you want to donate your body to science. Body Worlds technicians, according to CNN, “remove fat and water, ‘impregnate’ your corpse with rubber silicone and position it into a frozen pose.”
You Can Donate Just Your Skeleton
Who gets to check out your bones? Your family members can visit them anytime, as long as they’re not being used by faculty members or graduate students for “legitimate, non-destructive” research projects.
Your Face and Genitals Will Be Covered During Research
The Wall Street Journal says that when bodies are donated to Wayne State University in Detroit for “ impact-tolerance tests to help design crash-test dummies,” the heads are covered “as a sign of respect.” Other schools also hold memorial services and “blessing” ceremonies to show respect.
Your Spine Could Get Sold on the Black Market
How can this happen? It doesn’t help that in the US, “the trade in body parts not intended for transplant in another human is unregulated.”
You Could Get Enlisted
A philosophy professor interviewed by the Associated Press put it this way: “Imagine if your mother had said all her life that she wanted her body to be used for science, and then her body was used to test land mines.”