Body and Organ Donation, A Gift to Science

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PDFPDFDeath provides many of us with a one-time chance to make a valuable gift to humanity. All major religions approve of body and organ donation for medical and dental teaching, research, and transplants. According to public opinion polls, most people believe that such donations are desirable.

Organ Donation

With the advances in medical science in the last decade, organ transplants have become fairly common. Organ donation at a time of death is a gift of life or sight to the recipient. Circumstances surrounding death may limit this option, yet the corneas of even elderly donors will be grateful accepted. If your wish is to aid the living with an organ donation, make sure your next-of-kin and your physician know your preference. This intent should be noted on any medical or hospital records, too. A body from which organs have been removed will not be accepted for medical study.

Body Donation

Medical schools have an ongoing need of bodies for teaching and research. The need may be especially urgent at osteopathic and chiropractic schools. No medical school buys bodies, but there is usually little or no expense for the family when death occurs. Therefore, if you live in an area where low-cost funeral options do not exist, body donation may be an economical as well as thoughtful and generous choice.

Most medical schools pay for nearby transportation as well as embalming and final disposition. The School may have a contract with a particular firm for transporting bodies, so it is important to inquire about the specific arrangements to be used at the time of death in order to avoid added costs. After medical study, the body is usually cremated, with burial or scattering in a university plot. Often the cremains or remains can be returned to the family for burial within a year or two. This request should be made known at the time of donation. Some medical schools require that a donor register before death. However, in many cases, next-of-kin may make the bequest without prior arrangement.

Funeral Plans

Because it is important for the medical school to start preservation as soon after death as possible, a memorial service is most appropriate for those planning on body donation. Alternative plans for body disposition should be discussed with your family. A few schools take care of disposition regardless of condition at the time of death, in fulfillment of their contract with a donor. Most medical schools, however, follow guidelines in the acceptance of a body. If death occurs at the time of surgery, for example, the body would not be accepted for study. Certain diseases, as well as obesity, make a body unsuitable. Some medical schools may not have an immediate need and have no provision for storage or for sharing with another university.

Provisions When Traveling

There will be special considerations if death occurs while you are traveling and you planned on body donation. If you are a great distance from the medical school of your choice, should your family bear the cost of transporting your body there, or may the nearest university be contacted? The need for cadavers in some foreign countries is even greater than in the U.S. For example, in Argentina 200 medical students must share a cadaver. A private individual's body may be shipped to another country if placed in a hermetically sealed container. If death were to occur abroad, do you wish your survivors to inquire about the local need for bodies or organs to fulfill the intent of your anatomical bequest? Be sure to note your preference on the Uniform Donor Card you carry.

Last Updated ( Thursday, 19 November 2009 18:30 )  
Comments (2)
1 Thursday, 05 June 2008 15:55
For donation, embalming can't be done?
In NJ, I think time of death till cremation has a time limit. What is that time limit?
If death is at home, how is the organ donated? Call a hospital?
Who declares person dead at home--any doctor? Nurse?
Where is cause of death listed?
We want the ashes present for our religious service & will need to schedule.
Who can tell us when we can do this?
We do have a living will & if spouse is not available, we have designated a daughter for decisions.
Thanks for your help!
2 Monday, 09 June 2008 14:11
Hi there,

Let me answer your questions one by one.

"For donation, embalming can't be done?"

REPLY: Yes, if you're donating live organs for transplant, you can't have them punctured and suffused with formaldehyde. You can certainly have embalming done after the organs are removed for transplant.

If you're donating the whole body for anatomical study, the medical school will embalm the body.

"In NJ, I think time of death till cremation has a time limit. What is that time limit?"

REPLY: You must wait 24 hours after the time of death before you cremate.


"If death is at home, how is the organ donated? Call a hospital?"

REPLY: You cannot donate live organs in such a situation. The body has to be on life-support at a hospital so the organs stay alive in order for them to be useful for live transplant.

"Who declares person dead at home--any doctor? Nurse?
Where is cause of death listed?"

REPLY: If the person is under the care of hospice, for example, the hospice nurse or attending doctor can do so. In most cases, the person's doctor, or the last doctor to monitor their care, will sign the death certificate. If the death is unexpected (like a young person, etc.), the medical examiner of the county will have the authority to examine the body and sign the death certificate. That is where the cause of death is listed.

"We want the ashes present for our religious service & will need to schedule."

REPLY: You're unclear on exactly what you're asking. Are you expecting some sort of delay? The answer to when you get the ashes back is "when the cremation is performed." This is going to depend on when you schedule it, and what the funeral tells you they can do in terms of turnaround.


Josh Slocum
Funeral Consumers Alliance

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