Written by Jacob Terranova
Donating your body after you die—whether as an anatomical gift, for research, or as a lifesaving transplant—is a noble gesture.
There also are some misconceptions when it comes down to it, though. Let’s break down exactly what it means to donate your body.
Science or sharing?
When it comes to making a donation, there are different ways to do so. There is full-body donation and also individual organ donation, and it’s important to understand the difference between the two.
Full-body donation is typically used for scientific research or to train medical students. Organ donation is used to transplant different organs to those who need them most, like those who are dying from disease or those who have been in an accident.
Because most scientific studies will require the full human body, choosing organ donation can make a person ineligible for a full body donation.
There are no federal guidelines when it comes to body or organ donation, and each state outlines requirements for consent and donation under the Uniform Anatomical Gift Act legislation. But for either option, it’s best to plan ahead—those interested in donation should let family and their doctor know about their intentions and get the proper paperwork filled out.
Who can donate?
For organ donation, potentially anyone can be considered after making their wishes known. A medical exam is given after death to determine which organs are viable to be used for a transplant. There are some restrictions that can rule you out, such as:
- Testing as HIV/AIDS positive.
- Having an actively spreading cancer.
- A severe infection.
- Damage to the organs, either from trauma or a history of drug or alcohol abuse.
There also are some restrictions when making a full body donation, but because the types of research involved with full body donations can vary, the requirements vary as well.
As for religion, almost all major religions support forms of organ donation. Even Jehovah’s Witnesses, who are believed to be against organ donation due to their belief against blood transfusion, sometimes allow organ transplantation as long as all blood is removed from the organ beforehand.
If you are considering being an organ donor but are unsure of your religion’s views, consult the elders of your church, synagogue, mosque, temple, or other place of worship to be sure.
Depending on your choice of donation, a lot can actually happen. For organ donation, your gift will help one of the 120,000 Americans in need of a donation.
For the people who opted for a full body donation, there are many ways a research facility might use a donated body. They include:
- Medical and surgical training for students and aspiring doctors.
- The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration works with researchers and universities to study car crashes and promote studies in improving safety features.
- A ‘body farm’, or forensic anthropology studies for the stages of human decomposition. The studies aid criminal investigation and law enforcement departments across the country.
- Putting the body or skeleton on display for educational purposes, such as museums or other exhibits.
For families interested in donating all or part of their body, they commonly believe that they can’t have a funeral service—but that’s not true. Most organ donors can receive a service just as they would have wanted—whether it’s an open casket, natural burial, or home funeral. Every effort to minimize or hide scarring is taken during the procedure.
In whole body donation, a normal burial or viewing of the body won’t be possible, but it doesn’t mean a memorial service isn’t an option. Upon completion of medical studies, many organizations will return the cremated ashes for families. Some medical schools will even hold their own memorials to honor the donation made.
Obviously donating might not be for everyone. Those that do plan to donate should have a backup plan, as donations aren’t 100% guaranteed. But donating your body remains a special way to give a final gift back to society.
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