7 Things You Should Know About Donating Your Body to Science

Nearly two dozen people die every day because they don't get the organ they need to survive. Oleksandr Lysenko/Shutterstock

Donating to charitable causes doesn’t have to end after you die. Giving your organs to those in need or your whole body to aid medical research lets you continue helping others when you’re no longer around.

“Being able to give back in such a concrete way to future generations is a wonderful gift, and nearly everyone will qualify,” says Melinda Ellsworth, vice president of donor services at Science Care, a whole body donation company that links people who want to donate tissue to medical researchers and organs to patients in need.

There are several options for donating your body or organs — some pretty offbeat, as you’ll see. But all have the potential to affect many lives for years to come. Consider the case of Henrietta Lacks who died of cervical cancer in 1951, and who was the subject of a 2011 book, “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.” Cells taken from her tumor created the first human immortal cell line and have supported groundbreaking medical research for over 60 years — everything from testing Jonas Salk’s polio vaccine in 1954 to aiding breakthroughs in gene mapping.

Here are some things to consider when deciding where and what to donate.

Is It Better to Donate Your Organs or Your Whole Body?

It’s a personal choice. Both types of donations let you continue doing good after you go, but they’re different.

Some 120,000-plus Americans are currently waiting for an organ transplant. About 22 of them die each day because of organ shortages, including hearts, kidneys, lungs and small intestines. Ireland even recently tried to pass a bill, which was defeated, that would make organ donation an automatic opt-in. Organs from a single body can save up to eight lives, and donating tissue, such as tendons, heart valves and corneas, can help 50 more people.

Whole-body donations also typically involve removing tissue and organs, but not for transplants. Instead, they help medical researchers devise new disease treatments and medical devices, or help practicing doctors stay current on skills and learn new surgical techniques. For instance, your arteries may be used to test a new type of stent, or your hands may be used to perfect a new tendon repair procedure.

As with organ donations, one body can typically supply several research projects. Listen to this Radiolab story about how one couple’s donation of their infant son’s eyes, liver and umbilical cord blood after his death continues to save lives.

Another possibility: Your body could be kept intact for dissection by medical students.

Can You Be Both an Organ Donor and a Whole Body Donor?

closeup of human feet with a tag at the morgue
You can donate your entire body, just individual organs, or both. artpixelgraphy Studio/Shutterstock

Most people sign up for one or the other, but it’s possible to do both (except when an intact body is needed). Some organizations, like Science Care, let you specify that your organs be removed first for waiting transplant recipients, and then other tissue is removed for research.

How Do You Sign Up?

It’s best to make arrangements before you die. To donate transplant organs and tissue, register with your state’s donor registry and check "yes" to donations on your driver’s license.

To donate your whole body as a dissection cadaver for medical students, contact the body donation program of your local medical school. To help doctors practice skills or learn new ones, you can will your body to the Medical Education and Research Institute.

Another route is to register with a broker, like Science Care, MedCure and BioGift, which will match various tissues to appropriate medical research programs. Occasionally these brokers also supply medical schools and others with whole cadavers.

Are There Health, Age or Other Restrictions?

Anyone of any age — from infants to seniors — can donate transplant organs and tissue, even those with pre-existing medical conditions. Only a few illnesses absolutely rule out donation, like HIV infection and active cancer. If your organs and tissue are healthy after your death, you’ll be immediately matched with potential donors by blood type, geographic proximity and other factors.

Likewise, whole body donation programs accept almost anyone. Some won’t take obese bodies, or those with contagious diseases, like hepatitis C or HIV. Others have a few age restrictions.

What Happens to Your Remains Afterwards?

With organ and tissue donations, everything is typically removed immediately upon death and your body is returned to your family — all at no cost — so they can proceed with a timely funeral.

Likewise, body donation is also free of charge. After research is completed — usually within a few weeks — your remains are cremated and returned to your family.

Any Chance You Might End up as a Museum Exhibit?

No, unless that’s what you want. With most organ and body donations, you’re told up front about possible uses (which, by the way, never include museum exhibits). Sometimes you can even specify your preferences.

However, if being on display is your thing, the "Body Worlds" exhibition might be your ticket. First step, donate your body to the Institute for Plastination in Germany where it will undergo the plastination process to preserve it.

Any Other Donation Options?

Yes, especially if you lean toward the offbeat. For instance, you can become a crash-test dummy. Wayne State University’s biomedical engineering lab uses cadavers not only to test auto safety, but also to design helmets to protect NFL players from concussions. You can will your body to the university’s medical school and specify its use for safety testing.

You can also donate your skeleton for study by researchers and forensics experts at the Maxwell Museum of Anthropology’s Laboratory of Human Osteology at the University of New Mexico. Or consider donating your remains to “the body farm,” at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville’s Forensic Anthropology Center. Bodies are left outside to study how they decompose, and then forensic anthropologists and law enforcement officials research the skeletons to understand things like determining time of death.

Regardless of the path you choose, you should make sure you and any family members who are like to survive you understand what it involves. This video from organdonor.gov gives a good overview: