What are you going to do when you die, just rot in the ground like a selfish jerk? If instead you'd rather set those organs you aren't using anymore to better use saving lives and training surgeons, here's what you need to know about making something of your afterlife.
Before you blanche, the practice is actually quite common, with 10,000 - 15,000 Americans donating their bodies to science annually and hundreds of universities and private medical facilities throughout the nation accepting them. Interestingly, there is no actual federal statute or licensing regulation that dictates how the body donation process works. Instead most states have adopted and abide by the Uniform Anatomical Gift Act, which also established a person's right to choose body donation after their death.
Decide Where You Want to Be Donated
With hundreds of facilities potentially willing to accept your corpse after you pass, you'll be awash in alternatives. But which program do you choose and how do you even find one in the first place?
If you live here in the U.S., the University of Florida maintains a fairly comprehensive list of programs throughout the lower 48, most of which are university-affiliated. Alternately, databases like the Anatomy Gifts Registry, BioGift, and Science Care can put you in contact with a privately-run program.
Don't go choosing a facility on the other side of the country, however. While most donation programs will collect your corpse for transportation at no cost to your grieving family, there is usually around a 100-mile (or, at least, a state-line) limit on these services due to the difficulty and cost associated with shipping a body over long distances without it peutrifying.
Also, and this should go without saying, no the program will not pay your family, as federal statute prohibits the purchase and sale of bodies. However, after the research period has concluded—usually within a year or two—most donation programs will cremate your body and either return it to your family or intern it locally, a process that would otherwise cost your family around $5,000.
Once you've decided on a suitable donation facility and you have checked to ensure that you meet their physiological acceptance criteria, you'll need to contact the program directly. They'll send out some forms and applications for you to complete and return to be listed in the program registry. This isn't a legal binding contract or anything; if you change your mind later, simply write to the program and tell them you're out. Similarly, your next of kin will need to reach out to the program within 24 hours of your passing (again with the putrification) to alert them to come round you up. Obviously, the specific process will differ from one program to the next.
Be Sure to Tell Your Doctor and Family
Once you've signed up for a whole body donation program, and this is vital, tell your family and physician about your choice. Since you won't be able to ring the donation service yourself to tell them you've croaked, you'll need at least one trusted family member on board to get the ball rolling. And, while you're at it, be sure to update your living will to reflect your wishes and maybe consider assigning medical power of attorney to a trusted relative.
What Happens to Your Body
There are a number of different potential uses for your donated body, depending largely on the facility that you're donating it to. Some places will employ it for "anatomical examinations," a fancy way of saying visual aides for physiology classes; others will use it for general research, which covers the entire range of cadaver-based medical experimentation (don't get huffy, you were already done with that spleen); while still others may leverage your husk for surgical training, because the last thing you want to hear before going under on an operating table is, "please turn the manual pages faster, nurse." You generally won't get to dictate the precise use of your body, only the program that will be using it.
Or if you want to take a more extreme route after you pass, you can donate your body to the University of Tennessee, Knoxville's Anthropology Department, where yes, you will spend a fair amount of time in the ground, but you'll be doing so in the name of science! UTK is home to the nation's premiere Forensic Anthropology program—the study of human decomposition as it relates to law enforcement investigations.
Our current understanding is based on the study of skeletal remains from the 19th century and is quickly growing woefully out of date, UTK's program is working to refresh that knowledge through the study of skeletons from the modern era.
What You Can and Can't Donate
Whole body donation differs slightly from organ donation, in that it requires the entire corpse, not just specific, valuable organs. Typically once a body has been relieved of its organs, there is little of value left for a full-body donation, which is why you can generally only be an organ donor or a full-body donor but not both. There are a few exceptions to this—Stanford's Willed Body Program, for example, has no problem taking a donation if, say, only the corneas have been harvested—but they are definitely in the minority.
The condition of your corpse makes a difference as well. If you've been smoking rocks (or two packs a day) for the last two decades, there probably won't be very many viable, donatable organs left when you die. The same goes for infectious diseases, as well as if your body is badly mangled in a car or wheat thresher accident. For example, as Stanford's Willed Body Program page states:
There is no upper age limit for whole body donation, nor does amputation preclude acceptance. Medical conditions that would prevent acceptance as a donor include: Creutzfeldt-Jacob disease, hepatitis, HIV, and tuberculosis. Extensive trauma at the time of death or advanced decomposition would also make the remains unsuitable for anatomical study. Due to the nature of our preparation process, we are unable to accept donors weighting over 250lbs.
The weight limit is there for good reason too. "Someone that's shorter and carrying a lot of weight, that is a problem," Richard Drake, director of anatomy and a professor of surgery, at the Cleveland Clinic Body Donation Program, told NBC. "The storage is one issue, but when you are obese, there's a lot of tissue everywhere. The students don't get as good a learning opportunity."
Surprisingly, a good chunk of that weight is generated by the embalming process. "The embalming process adds considerable weight. Generally, a 250-pound person might weigh 350 to 400 pounds when embalmed," said Richard Dey, professor and chairman of the Department of Neurobiology and Anatomy at West Virginia University in Morgantown, told NBC News.
This obviously isn't for everyone, or even for most people. But it's a good option for those who want to help advance the cause of science—and who are pretty sure they won't notice either way when the time comes. [HuffPo - Wiki - UTK - Stanford Willed Body Program - University of Florida]
Lead Image: "Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Willem van der Meer" by Michiel Jansz. van Miereveld, 1617 via WGA