If it’s a gift you feel able to give, donating your body to science can be a brilliant way to help others after you die. So, what do you need to know before you make a donation, and what happens when you do? Here we’ll cover all the details, so you can make an informed choice about what’s best for you and your family.

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What does it mean to donate your body to science?

Donating your body to medical science means leaving your body to a research or training institution, like a medical school, so that it can be used to train healthcare professionals or develop new treatments.

Around 700 people in the UK donate their bodies to science each year. The medical students and research scientists who work with them greatly appreciate it – without such donations, their training and many advances in medicine would not be possible.

You don’t have to donate your whole body to make a difference. You can actually donate just your brain or your tissue instead. Ask your chosen medical school or research centre about your options.

 

What happens if you leave your body to medical science?

What happens when you donate your body to science will depend on who you donate your body to, but some standard examples are:

  • Teaching medical students about anatomy
  • Conducting research and scientific studies into the human body
  • Testing new surgical techniques and training surgeons to perform them

Donating your body to science is different to donating your organs to people who need transplants. When the time comes, staff from the medical school or research centre will collect your body. Once they have it, they will check for any medical conditions – like infectious diseases – that would rule it out from use. If all is well, technicians usually embalm your body, preserving it so that it can be handled for a longer period of time.

Depending on what you agreed when you signed up to donate, the medical school or research centre may keep your body for a few months, years, or indefinitely. When they no longer need it, they will cremate it and return the ashes to your family, unless you have requested a burial, in which case they’ll give your body back to your family as it is. Some medical schools also provide a quiet, private funeral service for each donor. Others hold an annual thanksgiving service for all donors that their families can attend every year.

 

How to donate your body to science in the UK

  1. Decide who to donate your body to

    Time for a little research. You’ll need to decide which medical school or research centre to give your body to. Where you live matters – many organisations can’t accept donations from too far away – so bear that in mind when you start looking.

    It’s also important to make sure that your donation will go where you intend it to. There are some organisations who claim that they will give your body to a relevant medical organisation after your death, but who might actually give it to an organisation in an unrelated field of research. To make sure that your chosen organisation uses your body strictly for scientific research, look for someone licensed by the Human Tissue Authority.

  2. Register with the medical school

    Once you’ve chosen where your body will go, contact the organisation to register. You can find an example of a donation form here. Check the terms very carefully. Remember to ask about:

    • What will happen after your death. When the time comes, your family need to know what to do and how to start making arrangements with the medical school.
    • The costs they’ll take on, and the costs you will need to cover. Some organisations ask the family to cover the cost of transporting their relative’s body to the medical school. Others cover everything, including the funeral.
    • How long they can use your body for. You can limit how much time a school can hold on to your remains for. You can also donate your body indefinitely. Bear in mind that this could mean that your family will wait for them for a long time, however.
    • How they say they will use your body. Sometimes you can indicate a preference that they will take into account.
    • Whether or not they’re allowed to take photographs. Some schools or research centres might wish to photograph your body during examination. Make sure you opt out of this if you’re not comfortable with it.
    • What will happen to your remains after their release. You might choose to have a private funeral. Or you might ask the medical school to make arrangements themselves.
  3.  Make a backup plan in case you can’t donate your body to science

    Not every body donated to science is accepted. You can’t predict how you’ll die, or where, so it’s a good idea to have a backup plan for what will happen if the medical school can’t take your body. If you like, we can help you research funeral costs and set up a funeral plan just in case.

    Reasons for unsuccessful donations include:

    • Infectious disease, like hepatitis or MRSA
    • Extensive cancer
    • Some forms of dementia
    • Recent surgeries
    • Extremes of weight (a BMI that is too low or too high)
    • The place you die is outside the catchment area
    • The effects of a post-mortem, should a coroner decide that one is needed
    • Holiday closures – if you die while the facility is closed for a holiday period, such as Christmas or Easter, there may not be anyone available to process your donation

    In these cases, your family will need to make other arrangements. So, it’s a good idea to think about these alongside your plans for leaving your body to science. Don’t worry – there’s support available if you need help with funeral costs.

  4. Tell your family and friends about donating your body to science

    It’s important that your close friends and family know that you’d like to donate your body to science. They’ll also need to know how to make arrangements with the medical school when the time comes. Sit down with them to talk about it and explain why it’s important to you.

    While it’s also a good idea to write your wishes up in your will, this isn’t enough by itself. It may be some time before the will is read and your family will need to act fast to make a donation.

  5. Think about a memorial service

    The funeral often plays a really important part in the grieving process. However, while your chosen medical school will arrange a cremation for you, it might be private or very basic. It may also be some time before they can return your remains to your family. So, it’s worth thinking about whether you’d like a memorial service to be held after your death. This could be with your ashes (e.g. scattering them in a favourite spot) or without any remains present. Consider speaking to your family about how you’d like to be commemorated. You can find out more about memorial services here.

You can make your will for free with Beyond’s online will writing tool! It takes just ten minutes – click here to get started.

 

Do you get paid for donating your body to science? Does it cost anything?

You probably won’t be paid for donating your body. But often the place you donate to will cover the cost of a short service and basic cremation. This can save you thousands of pounds in funeral costs.

So, what about paying them? Usually, you won’t have to pay anything. The medical school may ask your family for a donation, but this will be optional.

In some cases, you might have to contribute towards transportation of your body (or storage, if it needs to be kept before collection). This shouldn’t be much, but do check with your chosen organisation about any associated costs.

 

Can I control what my body will be used for when it’s donated to science?

Essentially, no. The medical school will use your body in whatever way they think is most appropriate. This might be post-mortem examination by medical students, use in medical research, or other health-related education and training.

If you’re particularly interested in helping with a specific type of training, or research into a certain disease or condition, you can ask your chosen medical school to keep that in mind. Be aware that they may not be able to accommodate your request, though.

 

Can I donate my body to science AND donate my organs for transplant?

Probably not. The surgeries needed to remove organs for transplants tend to make donation to medical science impossible. You can still volunteer yourself for both if you want, though. People whose bodies aren’t a good fit for organ transplant can often still help others by donating to a research centre instead.

 

More resources on donating your body to science

For more information on donating your body to science in the UK, you can visit:

 

Any questions about donating your body to science?

Ask us anything – just pop your question in the comment box below.

 

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