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Donate Your Body to Science

Are you considering donating your body after death? It is more common than you think. The decision can be made in healthcare facilities but planning ahead helps smooth the donation process and prepare your loved ones by making your wishes known.

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Entire Body Donation vs. Organ Donation

This article focuses on donor programs for your entire body, not organ donation or anatomical donations for parts of your body. In the medical research and medical science world, this is commonly called “whole body donation.”

The decision to donate your body to science can be part of the estate planning process. End-of-life wishes regarding your health care, organ donation, and body disposition are typically included in a health care directive or living will.

We make estate planning and the body donation process easy. Learn about our DIY estate planning documents here.

What Is Whole Body Donation?

The Uniform Anatomical Gift Act (UAGA) governs the donation of cadavers for science. A whole-body donation is a donation of a body without the removal of organs for research and instruction after death.

The process for donated bodies is different from organ donation or tissue donation. Organ donors usually make their organ donation wishes clear by specifying which body parts can or cannot be donated. The symbol found on the back of a driver’s license indicating an individual has opted to be an organ donor is probably not sufficient to establish their wish to donate their entire body. Most legal documents ask you to indicate the exact body parts that can or cannot be donated.

Medical schools and private organizations accept whole-body donations. These assist in anatomical studies, the medical education of medical students, the study of diseases, and scientific research. Growing awareness about the value of body donation has contributed to an increase in programs to receive donations. The University of California School of Medicine even works with nonprofit groups to share information about the vital role of whole-body donations.

Donating Your Body with a Health Care Directive

The best approach to donating your body involves planning in advance. This article covers some of tools you may want to consider.

A common way to donate your body involves creating an estate plan that includes a health care directive and living will. This allows you to communicate your instructions for medical care to your attending health care professionals and providers in the event you’re incapacitated and cannot express your wishes. It also allows you to state instructions for what you want to happen to your body after your death.

You can express your wishes about CPR, ventilators, comfort care, and life-prolonging treatment like artificial nutrition and hydration. You can also leave body disposition instructions for the donation of your entire body or specific organ and tissue donation instead. And you can appoint a health care agent to carry out your health care wishes or make medical decisions for you.

It’s up to you to decide what you want to include in your health care directive and living will. Many people choose to create their own by using a DIY solution for health care decisions and other types of estate planning documents. This allows you to maintain control over your decisions and create a plan customized to meet your needs. You also have the option to revoke your wishes if you change your mind.

In addition to a health care directive and living will, you may want to appoint someone you trust to manage your affairs with a financial power of attorney if you’re unable to do so yourself. You can also create a last will and testament to bequest your property and other gifts to family or friends after you die.

Other Ways to Donate Your Body

You can also donate your body by pre-registering with an accredited donation organization, human body donation program, or school of medicine. The process may vary among organizations and programs, but you’ll be required to sign a consent form to make the body donation. There are websites, like Science Cares, that allow you to register online to donate your body to science. However, registration with Science Care is not permitted in every state, any typos or mistakes in your registration may cause issues and delays, and there is a separate process for terminally ill donors.

Organizations are unable to accept potential donors with infectious or contagious diseases. This list typically includes HIV/AIDS, hepatitis B, hepatitis C, or prion diseases (rare, fatal brain diseases).

What Happens After You Die

If you’ve elected to donate your body with a health care directive, your instructions should be followed at the time of death. The appropriate program, organization, or medical facility will be notified so steps can be taken to release your body.

The law prohibits medical organizations from paying for whole-body donations, but most medical institutions will pay for the costs incurred from the donation. Most medical organizations will pay for the body’s transportation and may file the death certificate. The medical institution will often pay for the disposal of the body through cremation and will return the cremated remains to family members upon their request.

Funeral homes can still arrange a funeral or memorial service for the whole-body donor’s family. Potential donors don’t need to feel as if they are taking away part of the grieving process from their families.

Inform Your Family

If you intend to donate your body to science, it is essential to inform family members. Choosing to use a living will (also commonly called a health care directive), lets your family know so they are prepared to carry out your wishes.

Making your preferences known reduces the potential for conflict among your family members and other loved ones. It can also alleviate the emotional burden they may feel when trying to make the right decisions on your behalf. If the intent to donate your body is not made in writing, the law allows the donor’s legal next-of-kin to consent to the donation.

If you are interested in whole-body donations, you can DIY your end-of-life wishes from home.

Learn more about the importance of making your wishes known with our FAQs About Estate Planning.

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Written by:

Jordan Walker, J.D.

Legal Writer


Reviewed by:

Ally Marshall, Esq.

Managing Editor