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Science Thursday, August 1st 2013 at 12:25 pm

How and Why I’m Donating My Body to Science

I don't plan on ever dying, but it's good to have a backup plan.

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I might die some day. I know. I’m bummed too. Hopefully not anytime soon, but I started thinking about my post-death options recently after a relative’s funeral. While “never die ever” is still at the top of my list, I’ve decided that donating my body to science should be my alternative. It’s not like I’m going to be doing anything with it after I’m dead. I might as well help science.

First, I’ll say I’m not worried about what will become of my body when I die. It’s a touchy subject for some people for various religious, family, or societal reasons, but as far as I’m concerned, when I die I’m done using this thing, and it’d be selfish not to let science have it. I’d like my body to be able to go on and help other people instead of being ceremoniously buried or burned, and donating it to science seems like the best way to do that.

Medical schools are an obvious place to donate one’s body. There’s really no substitute in medical training better than an actual body, so they have a lot to gain from donation. The other benefit is that many of them already have programs in place to accept body donations. That’s important, because most places probably frown on folks just dropping bodies off unannounced.

If there’s a particular medical school you’d like to have take your body after you die, you can probably find information about their donor program on their website. There you will probably find a form to fill out to begin the donor registration process. If you’re not sure if a school accepts bodies, or don’t know of any in your area, a quick search for “body donation” plus your state should help you narrow down some options.

I was surprised to find out that in most cases schools wouldn’t let me decide exactly what my body would be used for. Not that I’m particularly picky about it, but it seems reasonable to tell an institution the type of thing you’d like your body to be used for, or perhaps more importantly — not used for.

An article about donating your body to science on The Straight Dope points out that different parts of my body could be sent off to different departments. At that point I won’t care what happens to my body, but it’s good to know in advance that my head and body could wind up in completely different places.

Different institutions do different types of research. You could think you’re donating your body for the purposes of medical study, but it winds up being used for something you never imagined like automobile crash testing. There’s no guarantee that you can know how your body will be used when you donate it, but it’s probably a good idea to at least look into the type of research an institution does before you will them your body.

I looked at a few medical schools in my area for a place to donate my body, but while doing research I came across something I had completely forgotten was a thing — The University of Tennessee Knoxville Anthropology Research Facility, better known as “the body farm.”

The body farm uses donated bodies to help scientists better study and understand human decomposition. The research done there helps investigators gather information at crime scenes like time-of-death, and how environmental conditions can affect decomposition. It does this by laying bodies out in different open-air environments where they decompose naturally.

You get to decompose as nature sees fit, and your body can help solve crimes. Sounds like a win-win all around. One disadvantage is that medical schools will often return the remains of you body to your next-of-kin when they’re done doing science stuff with it. The body farm keeps your skeleton at a separate facility in perpetuity for research, but once you’re done decomposing your relatives and loved ones can visit your skeleton. They cannot, however, visit you while you’re decaying on the body farm, and really — who would want to?

There are a few other similar facilities in the country, but the UT body farm is the most well-known. If you live more than 100 miles from Knoxville, you have to arrange for your own post-mortem transportation to the farm, but other than that there is no expense for the donation.

What’s particularly nice about the body farm is that it allows you make requests for what they do with your body. There’s no guarantee, but for example, if you request that your body not be left to decompose in water they’ll try their best to find you a nice dry spot.

Donating one’s body to science might not be for everyone, but to me it makes a lot more sense than rotting in the ground or having my ashes sit in a jar. If you do decide to donate your body to science, it’s important to make your wishes known to your family and loved ones. You can also include it in your will, or you know, write a blog post about it on a popular geek culture site.

It’s important to make sure they’re on board with your plans, because it’s your family and next-of-kin that get the final say in what happens to you when you die, and even if you register with a body donation program, they’re not going to fight over you.

(via University of Tennessee and The Straight Dope, image via Erik Mallinson)

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