Q. My father, who is frail and elderly, wants his body donated to science when he dies. Does that mean there’s no funeral or memorial service? Why do people want to do this?

A. Those who make this choice usually wish to benefit society. The decision is sometimes difficult for survivors to accept, but it’s a matter of carrying out the loved one’s wishes. We hear less about whole body donations than about donations of body parts, but cadavers play a critical role in medical education and research. Medical students train with cadavers, which are essential for learning anatomy and surgical and other techniques. A great deal of research depends on the use of actual bodies. Many medical schools have established willed body programs to help insure a supply is available. There are also state programs, as well as companies (which may be nonprofit or for profit) that provide donated bodies to medical schools. The Uniform Anatomical Gift Act governs organ donation and anatomical gifts of cadavers for medical education and research.


Donated bodies are cremated eventually. A memorial service can follow. One woman donated her husband’s body after he suffered a stroke at age 88 with no chance of regaining consciousness. He had told her in the past that this was what he wanted. A hospital social worker called around and found a medical center that would take the body.


The medical center held a memorial service about six month after the donation to acknowledge the gift, along with similar gifts by several other families. Many first-year medical students attended. Family members spoke at the service. Each family received a beautiful orchid plant and was told that “Flowers represent life, and death, and then blooming again.” The family of the stroke victim wound up feeling that he had made an important, generous gift.


To avoid scrambling to make arrangements for body donation at the last minute, it’s a good idea to do some research now. The University of Florida has assembled a state-by-state list of body donation programs in the United States: http://www.med.ufl.edu/anatbd/usprograms.html. The nonprofit Anatomy Gifts Registry in Maryland http://anatomicgift.com/ deals with whole body donations and individual body parts.   


Incidentally, donating one’s body to science is also a way to eliminate or greatly reduce funeral expense. Costs of transportation, storage and cremation are minimal or even free, depending on where the body is donated. 


If you have a question for Florence, please email her at fisaacs@florenceisaacs.com.


Florence Isaacs is the author of several books on etiquette, including My Deepest Sympathies: Meaningful Sentiments for Condolence Notes a.... She writes two advice blogs for Legacy.com: Sincere Condolences and Widow in the World, a new blog for bereaved spouses and partners.  



Image: Leonardo Da Vinci's "Vitruvian Man" (via www.stanford.edu)

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Comment by Marie Kruckenberg on May 1, 2012 at 7:48am

Giving ones body or even parts to science is the ultimate gift one can receive.  As a parent of a deceased child usually that is the last thing you are thinking about.  But when the hospital asked me to donate, I did not hesitate because that is just one way my son could live on.  What a beautiful gift it was, his parts helped 65 people.  What an awesome gift to give.  Please don't hesitate to make someone else life better and just look at it as I did.  You won't regret it, I promise.

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