Anatomical donation is a selfless way to give back, even after you’re gone. If you choose to donate your body to science, you’ll contribute to the medical community’s overall understanding of health, disease, and the human body.
Jump ahead to these sections:
- What’s a Body Donation Facility or Program?
- Anatomical and Body Donation Programs in the US
- What Happens After Body Donation?
Although the two sound the same, body donation is different from organ donation. With whole-body donation, you donate your whole body to a specific agency, rather than donating your organs to individual people.
But whole-body anatomical donation is also similar to organ donation in that you can help save lives. And that makes body donation a great alternative to burial for people who want to make a difference in the world.
In the United States, you have options when it comes to anatomical donation. Multiple agencies and programs, as well as medical schools and universities, accept body donations. Below, we’ll help you gain a better understanding of body donation and the programs available.
What’s a Body Donation Facility or Program?
First, it’s important to understand what, exactly, a body donation facility or program is.
Broadly speaking, “anatomical donation” falls into two categories: organ donation and whole body donation. In this article, we’re focusing on whole-body donation. Here’s what you need to know to understand the difference between the two:
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Organ donation is the type of anatomical donation you probably hear about the most. That’s because individuals who survive life-threatening conditions with the help of an organ donation often go on to share their gratitude with the world.
To become an organ donor, you register through the Department of Motor Vehicles in your state, which places you in a transplant registration system. When you pass away, this system matches you to patients who need organs with the same tissue type.
Rather than registering with your state’s DMV, you have to choose a specific program or facility, which is quite different from organ donation. Different facilities use body donations for different purposes. But the general purpose is to advance the scientific community’s understanding of the human body.
Although body donation is less glamorous and more anonymous than organ donation, it’s no less important. Your body could provide valuable insight into cancer, heart disease, or diabetes, allowing scientists to create better, more life-saving therapies. Or it could help educate the next generation of medical experts.
What if you want to donate your organs and donate your body to science? You’re in luck! Many body donation programs in the United States allow you to sign up even if you’re already an organ donor.
You’ll simply register as an organ donor at the DMV, then register with the body donation program separately. You’ll have a chance to let the body donation program know that you’re an organ donor. That way, the organ donation process takes place first in the event of your death.
Anatomical and Body Donation Programs in the US
Body donation can feel more complicated than organ donation in many ways. After all, there’s just one stop when it comes to registering as an organ donor: the DMV. But if you want to donate your body to science, you’ll have to do some research, first.
The biggest obstacle is choosing a body donation program. But ultimately, you should choose a facility or program that’s (a) relatively close to where you live; and (b) trustworthy and qualified to accept body donations.
You’ll have to determine which body donation facility is closest to you, and therefore easiest to work with. But below, we’ll provide a list of body donation programs that are reliable and qualified to work with anatomical donations.
The largest and most reliable body donation programs are those operated by medical schools and universities. In fact, medical schools were the only places you could donate your body to science for many years. It’s only recently that private institutions started offering anatomical donation programs.
If there’s a university in your state with a medical program, they likely have an anatomical donor program. Medical students have to study medicine using real, human cadavers. Donating your body to science with a medical university could mean it’s used to educate students, but could also be used for medical research.
Here are just a few examples of university anatomical donation programs:
- UCLA: Donated Body Program
- University of Miami School of Medicine: Department of Anatomy
- Northern Illinois University: Human Anatomical Sciences Program
- Indiana University: Anatomical Education Program
- Harvard University: Anatomical Gift Program
- Duke University: The Anatomical Gift Program
You can call the school of medicine department at the university directly or ask a representative about body donations. The Anatomical Board of the State of Florida maintains a full list of body donor programs by state, including university programs.
State anatomical boards
Some states, including Florida, Maryland, Illinois, and Texas have state anatomical boards. These programs are operated by the state government, and they manage whole body donation for institutions within that state.
For example, you can fill out Maryland’s “donor packet,” to become an anatomical donor in Maryland. After your death, the Anatomy Board will transport your body to a medical or dental school depending on the state’s current needs.
Registering through a state anatomy board simplifies the process of body donation. But it also limits your ability to choose where your body goes and how it’s used.
Here are a few state anatomy boards that provide body donation services. If your state isn’t listed below, you’ll need to visit the state’s official website to find out if it operates an anatomical board.
- Anatomy Board of Maryland
- Virginia State Anatomical Program
- Anatomical Board of the State of Florida
- Anatomical Board of the State of Texas
- Anatomical Gift Association of Illinois
Another place to check for body donation requests is any large medical center in your area. Large medical centers often have research departments that work in conjunction with local universities. So they often accept body donations, or they can work with you to find the best body donation option in your region.
An example of a major medical center that works with body donations is:
Mayo Clinic operates its anatomical bequest program out of Rochester, Minnesota, accepting body donations for the purposes of research, medical education, surgical training, and the testing of new devices and techniques.
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If you have a specific illness or ailment, such as cancer or heart disease, you may be able to donate your body to a specific program of research.
The best way to go about this is to contact the anatomical board or medical school in your area and ask about ongoing research in your particular disease. Ask whether the board or the program would be able to use your anatomical donation in that program specifically.
One example of a specific research program is:
Banner Sun Health Research Institute is part of its larger medical center in Phoenix, Arizona. But it focuses specifically on researching brain conditions, like Alzheimer’s. Most often, however, a program will decide where and how to use your anatomical donation for the greatest good.
Private programs and facilities
Finally, you can become a body donor by working with an independent service. These programs are operated separately from any university or governmental board but work with those same boards to allocate and distribute anatomical donations.
When you register with a private body donation service, they’ll perform an eligibility screening and match you with an appropriate institution according to your medical history. Private programs also arrange for the return of your cremains to the family after the research process is complete.
Using a service like these is best for people who know they want to donate their body to science, but they want someone else to choose where, specifically, their body goes.
Here are the most popular independent anatomical donor programs in the U.S.:
What Happens After Body Donation?
Anatomical donation isn’t just a generous way to help humankind; it’s also a low-cost form of final disposition. Most body donation programs cremate the body for free after the research process is complete. They then return your cremated remains to your family.
Many body donation facilities also provide the family with detailed information about how your body was used. They might provide insights into how your body helped further scientific and medical knowledge. Some body donation services even invite family members to special memorial events where they can meet the staff or students who were involved in the research process.
Post-planning tip: If you are the executor for a deceased loved one, handling their unfinished business can be overwhelming without a way to organize your process. We have a post-loss checklist that will help you ensure that your loved one's family, estate, and other affairs are taken care of.
- “Body donation policy.” American Association for Anatomy, www.anatomy.org/AAA/About-AAA/What-Is-Anatomy/Body-Donation-Policy.aspx
- “FAQ: How are organ donation and body donation different?” Medcure. 25 June 2019, medcure.org/faq-how-are-organ-donation-and-body-donation-different/
- “US programs.” Anatomical Board of the State of Florida College of Medicine, anatbd.acb.med.ufl.edu/usprograms/