To help out your community, you can easily donate old clothes, too big furniture and extra shoes. Giving your body to science, however, is a little different than stopping by the Salvation Army.
A cadaver donated to science can be incredibly valuable for research and education. In the 19th century, buried corpses were dug up for this very reason.
There’s no official number (since it’s not regulated by a federal agency), but it is estimated about 20,000 bodies per year are donated to medical schools around the U.S., according to the Harvard Business School. But The Economist reports that demand for these bodies are too high while supply is too low, mostly because people aren’t aware of the need.
If you decide to donate your organs, which you might’ve been offered at the DMV, you probably won’t be able to donate your whole body. But if you like things intact, you can fill out legal forms and donation documents, which can also be revoked if you change your mind. And because most programs will cover all transportation and cremation costs, next of kin can make the decision for you after death.
When you think about donating your body to science — if you’ve even thought about it at all — you probably imagine your naked and cold corpse being poked and prodded on a table surrounded by curious medical students. Sure, that might happen, but unfortunately once you donate your body to science — whether through a private company or direct willed body program — you have almost no say in where it goes, and you probably never will.
The plus side is that your dead body might also accomplish some adventures your living self never tried, like these listed below.
1. As a crash test dummy
Don’t worry, someone will help you buckle up. Or not, because your corpse might be used in testing car safety.
According to Wired, cadavers were used for testing safety when a researcher threw a corpse down an elevator shaft to see the force it could endure — great mental image right?
Since then companies like Ford have used cadavers to perfect inflatable rear seat belts in the 2011 Explorer. Ford attached sensors on the cadavers in order to locate and measure the force upon impact.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration works with universities to acquire the needed cadavers.
2. For medical training
One of the most well-known uses for donated bodies is for medical education purposes. Students in universities across the nation learn through willed body programs.
Once deceased, the body will usually be picked up by a respective facility, usually within a 100-mile radius of the campus, according to Gizmodo. But unfortunately not just anybody — or is it any body — will be accepted for medical research. The cadavers are aged above 18 years old and are uniformly healthy; they must have all organs intact (meaning no organ donors or autopsies), not be obese or have a communicable disease, according to the Neurobiology and Anatomy department of the University of Texas Houston. They use a body for up to two years before returning it cremated to the family.
3. On tour with the Body Worlds exhibit
You’ve seen it roll through town like a circus of immobile performers: Gunther von Hagen’s Body Worlds: The Original Exhibition of Real Human Bodies has been displaying authentic dead bodies stripped and posed since 1995. It claims to be the world’s most successful traveling exhibition, and you can join one day, too.
Since 2012, 12,172 living are on the donor roster and 1,138 deceased donors have already given to the Institute of Plastination, which supplies the exhibit.
According to the official website, the mission of the exhibit is for health education, to illustrate healthy and unhealthy organs, how the body looks when functioning in daily life. The showcased bodies are preserved through plastination. Fluid plastics harden and replace bodily fluids and fats.
4. Save a life through organ transplants
According to the U.S. Government Information on Organ and Tissue Donation and Transplantation, over 123,000 people are in need of an organ transplant. Donating your organs will either go to one of those in need or for research.
Those deceased are able to donate kidneys, pancreas, liver, lungs, heart and/or intestines. Tissue can also be used after death.
5. Join a skeleton collection
The University of Tennessee has a collection of about 1,000 skeletons, ranging in age and ethnicity. WM Bass Donated Skeletal Collection was launched in 1981. Its website states, “Every individual donated to the skeletal collection is also used to educate, train and provide a resource for research in forensic taphonomy.” That is “the study of the transition (in all its details) of animal remains from the biosphere into the lithosphere,” according to the Journal of Taphonomy.
“Once in the collection, all skeletal remains are utilized by researchers from varying academic and medico-legal institutions,” according to the university, which does not cremate bodily remains for this very purpose. Once in the collection, visitors can come by and say hi.
6. Forensic research on a body farm
About 1.3 acres of open air land belongs to the University of Tennessee’s Anthropology Research Facility, where dead bodies hang out for days, weeks or even months in setups ranging from ladders to old cars, according to a reporter who visited for the Utne Reader. Students are given one body per week to fully analyze.
This farm is the first systematic study of human decomposition. So far, 650 bodies have entered the program for the purpose of “forensic anthropology and skeletal biology for students and law enforcement agencies,” according to the school’s website. If this strikes your fancy but you’re claustrophobic or afraid of swimming, you can request not to be buried or placed in water.
Annually, the founder of the body farm, Dr. William Bass, hosts a memorial service for the bodies.
7. Become part of a museum
Opened 150 years ago, the Mütter Museum is located in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The museum displays over 25,000 preserved and interesting — think Albert Einstein’s brain remnants — anatomical and biological specimens ranging from human to animal, and working with The College of Physicians of Philadelphia.
Body donations to the museum are selective; a prospective donor must meet with the museum director and, if chosen, provide his or her own cleaning and preparation. They also do not accept entire bodies.
Who said life after death had to be boring?
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