The thought of donating one’s body to science typically conjures up images of anatomy classes at universities and teaching hospitals.

On the surface

Body donation has a long history in such settings, as most large universities have their own whole body donation programs. Choosing to donate to a specific university is a common option for those wishing to give back to their alma mater and help educate tomorrow’s medical professionals.

"For those wishing to give back, but are unable to donate transplantable tissue, whole body donation is particularly promising."

In the past decade, a number of non-university-affiliated whole body donation programs have emerged. These programs connect donors wishing to help advance medical science with the medical communities that rely on donors to further their research and training. Some of the more established programs also offer surgical training facilities and support.

Path less traveled

Another option for people wishing to donate their bodies includes institutions that focus on the study of decomposition processes to gain knowledge surrounding forensic anthropology. Although less commonly sought by prospective donors, the research undertaken by these institutions is nonetheless important, contributing to greater accuracy and effectiveness of crime scene investigations.

So which body donation is right for you? When exploring options, it is important to do your research and ask key questions.

  • What are the costs, if any? Most university body donation programs require a donor’s family to pay expenses related to transportation and cremation. Non-university-affiliated programs, on the other hand, typically absorb all costs related to the donation process, including transportation, cremation, ashes returned to family and, for some programs, a copy of the donor’s death certificate.

  • Is the program accredited? The preeminent accrediting body in the U.S. is the American Association of Tissue Banks (AATB), which establishes and monitors standards of care and procedures practiced by accredited programs.

  • What are the acceptance criteria? Some programs have tighter parameters than others, depending on how donations are utilized. Universities in general have the most stringent acceptance criteria and body farms have the broadest criteria. Most non-university-affiliated programs have no upper age limit and accept most non-infectious disease processes.

  • How extensive is the program’s coverage and network of medical professionals served? A small number of programs have national coverage, accepting donations from across the U.S., with most programs limiting their coverage regionally. Donating to a program that has established broader and deeper relationships with various medical communities increases the likelihood that a donation will be appropriately matched in a timely manner.

Fortunately for the future of medical science, whole body donation is gaining acceptance as a viable end-of-life option. For those wishing to give back, but are unable to donate transplantable tissue, whole body donation is particularly promising.