Donating Bodies to Medical Schools or Science

My mother always said she wanted to be buried in a plain pine box. After her death, I visited the business of a local funeral director who was also a family friend who knew my mother’s sense of humor. I don’t have a pine box, he told me, but let me show you what I do have in wood. It turned out to be a solid mahogany casket that cost over $8000, and that was in 1982! Suffice it to say, we settled on a much less expensive one. Altogether, though, the total funeral costs still came to more than two thousand dollars.

With that experience, I explored alternatives to expensive funerals. After much research and discussion, my husband and I decided to donate our bodies to a state medical school. In our case, it was the University of Florida in Gainesville.

At our request the University sent a packet of information which included the policies and procedures of donation, instructions for family members, an application form and consent form. (An application form was necessary due to certain restrictions by local laws and policies regarding acceptable bodies.) We learned that the U of F might keep a body up to two years, after which it is cremated. Family members are then notified that the ashes are available for return if the family requests. Unclaimed ashes are scattered by the University over the Gulf of Mexico. Since this was acceptable to us, we completed the applications, signed the consent forms and returned them. Subsequently, we each received a wallet size ID card indicating acceptance. We sent copies of the papers to our adult children and other pertinent family members to inform them of our decision and actions.

When my husband died of emphysema, I contacted a local funeral home and showed them the card. They took care of the rest. The U of F Medical School requires the donated body to be embalmed and transported to the school. The funeral home charged $1200 for those services. Later I received an honorarium of $500 from the school. Our family chose to have a simple memorial ceremony at the graveyard where his mother and sister were buried, so we had no elaborate funeral and no further contact with the funeral home. Later, when his ashes are returned to us from the school we may scatter them in an area he loves. Our total expenses came to $700.

In making our final choice we considered many factors, some of which I would call downsides. These included:

1. Cremation. Since most medical schools do cremate, this is an important factor for those who dislike or disagree with this practice.

2. Delay in final resolution. A medical school needs to keep the body for some time, so there may a delay of several months to a few years before ashes are returned to the family.

3. Organ donation: A school requires an intact body with which to work, so organ donations are disallowed.

4. Body handling: The body will be used by students performing autopsy-like procedures. We were told by school officials and others that the body is treated with respect and there is even a closing service held over the body before it is released to cremation. Nevertheless, for some, the idea of a loved one’s body being used in this manner is not acceptable.

5. Transportation: The initial agreement and cost of transportation assumes the person will be living near the school at the time of death. If the deceased was living or traveling out of the area there may be additional transportation costs.

While saving money was certainly a prime concern, I am satisfied with our decision for other reasons. I believe my husband’s body (and later on, mine) will help medical students become better, more knowledgeable doctors. I hope researchers may obtain valuable information about the disease that killed him; information helpful in treating others with the illness. In both cases, with our agreement to this method of handling death, his spirit can live on in future patients treated by the graduates of this school.