Donating Your Body to Science: 4 Things You Need to Know


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You are probably familiar with organ and tissue donation for transplantation and the life-saving impact these gifts can have for individuals in need of those organs.  

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Every day about 79 people receive an organ transplant while 18 die waiting for a donor. One organ donor can save as many as 8 lives.

Types of Body Donation

There are also other ways that our bodies can be useful for medical purposes. Whole bodies are used as cadavers for anatomical study at medical schools. Specific areas of the body are used for testing and practicing surgical techniques or other treatments. Bodies can also be donated to advance forensic research.

There are key differences between these types of donation--both for what happens to the body after donation and what will be returned to next-of-kin.  

  • With organ donation, you can specify which organs you’d like to donate and those matched to recipients are harvested as quickly as possible after death. The body is returned in time for typical funeral arrangements to proceed.
  • With full body donation to a medical school, the body needs to be transported or refrigerated quickly to forestall any decomposition; then, the body undergoes a special preservation process (longer-lasting than funeral home embalming). Medical school cadavers are typically in use for 1-3 years. At that point, the body is generally cremated (some programs offer burial at an affiliated cemetery)  and remains are returned to the next-of-kin. Here is a directory of anatomical donation programs by state.
  • For body donations that do not go to a medical school,  “body-broker” or “tissue bank” companies will match specific portions of the body with requests from medical research teams and educators who may have shorter-term needs. The parts are used for research or testing new medical procedures, tools, and equipment. Partial remains are typically cremated and returned to next-of-kin.
  • Mortuary schools that teach embalming are another option for full body donation, typically with fewer requirements for advance screening. Cremated remains are typically returned to next of kin within a few weeks.
  • Forensic Body Donation Programs sometimes called “body farms,” contribute to forensic research. Unlike many other programs, they do accept bodies from which eyes, organs and/or tissue have been donated for transplantation.  Because their studies involve observing the natural decomposition of the body, no remains are returned to the family.

Before choosing a donation type and specific program or company, be sure to do research and ask detailed questions. Is the program/company non-profit or for-profit?   Some companies do not adequately disclose what the bodies will be used for.

Some funeral homes are paid by for-profit body brokers, so be sure that your source of information does not have a financial interest in the outcome. An affiliate of the Funeral Consumers Alliance shares these helpful questions to ask a body donation program.

» MORE: This Memorial Day, thank those who made the ultimate sacrafice. Honor a veteran now.

Are All Bodies Eligible for Donation?

For all types of donations, a thorough medical vetting is required, although requirements vary by program and type of donation. Some programs will not accept very under- or over-weight bodies and most will not take bodies with certain medical conditions, such as hepatitis, HIV, or tuberculosis. Bodies that suffered extensive trauma or decomposition won't be accepted either.

Autopsied bodies generally cannot be donated. If organs have been harvested for transplantation, many whole-body donation programs will be unable to accept the body (However, you may be able to donate your organs even if you can’t donate your body). But unlike organs for transplantation, age is not a disqualifying factor in organs and bodies for research purposes.

Even with best-laid plans, your body may end up being rejected or be too expensive to transport, so decide what your back up plan is if body donation does not work out.

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What About Costs?

Body donation can reduce the costs of final disposition. Be sure to check with the program to determine which costs your family/estate will be responsible for, particularly transportation costs.

Most programs will pay to transport your body to the facility, either via your provider or theirs, but if you die a distance from the facility, they may not. The costs of cremation (or sometimes burial at their affiliated cemetery) are generally covered.

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Can I Still Have a Funeral If I Donate My Body to Science?

Most programs will require almost immediate transportation of the body to the facility, which may limit the amount of time your family has to say goodbye--which could be especially difficult in the case of sudden death.

Although your donated body will not be available for viewing or a conventional funeral, your loved ones can certainly still hold a memorial service. Some programs also perform a memorial service after the body has been used and before it's cremated. If cremated remains will be returned, ask for the timeframe--it may be several years after your death.

With some programs, a letter can be sent to loved ones explaining what projects benefited from the donation.

Make Your Body and Burial Wishes Known

Once you have selected a donation type and/or program, you will need to fill out the appropriate paperwork, and you may be given a wallet card to notify people of your intention to donate at the time of death.

Make your wishes clear to your family, since they will need to take specific time-sensitive actions after your death--a surprise could delay them in getting your body to the right facility in time. Have all the necessary program information and contact details available for your family and doctor.

Put it in writing and notify your attorney, particularly if you are concerned that your family may not honor your wishes after your death. If you change your mind about donating your body, you can always opt out of the program by notifying the program in writing and updating any relevant directives. And always have a back-up plan in case the donation becomes impossible for any reason.

Cake can help you think through and document all your end-of-life wishes.  Create your free Cake end-of-life plan -- you can answer questions over time to build a complete profile that contains everything your loved ones will need to know when the time comes.

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.

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