The cheapest way to dispose of a body? Donate it to science.
New York state is home to 16 medical schools, and each of them requires cadavers for use in anatomy classes. Cadavers are poked, prodded and dissected by first-year medical students. Those cadavers are acquired through whole body donation.
“Having the opportunity to learn from an individual’s body is a very special privilege,” said Dr. Jeffrey Laitman. “In many parts of the world the cadaver is called the first patient.”
But body donation is also a practical way to dispose of one’s remains and eliminate burial, cremation and funeral costs. Not only is donating one’s body to science good for the world at large, it can save family members and estates thousands of dollars.
The state of New York is home to 16 medical schools, and each of them requires cadavers for use in anatomy classes. Cadavers are poked, prodded and dissected by first-year medical students. Those cadavers are acquired through whole body donation.
“Having the opportunity to learn from an individual’s body is a very special privilege,” said Dr. Jeffrey Laitman, who runs the body donation program at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai Hospital. “In many parts of the world the cadaver is called the first patient.”
Once the individual passes, the body must be picked up by the university within one day for embalming and preparation. The bodies are picked up free of charge in the New York City area.
It is a process that Kathleen Beal will be part of some day. The 73-year-old has decided to donate her body to education when she dies.
“I started out my life as an adult as a teacher,” Beal said. “My husband always taught medical students and he says this would be a way to go on teaching and that’s the way I’d like to think about this.”
Beal’s thought process is very evolved. Throughout history, body dissection has been seen as a shameful end to life. In 1788, a mob attacked New York Hospital in response to the dissection of a recently deceased mother. The only federal law addressing the cadaver supply is from 1790, and it allowed federal judges to add dissection to a death sentence for murder. Body dissection was considered a punishment worse than death.
“While execution was a threat to one’s life, dissection was an assault on one’s soul,” wrote Raphael Hulkower in a paper on the history of body procurement for medical research from 2011. As medical schools spread across the country, grave robbing became rampant. It was only in the 20th century that the donating one’s body to science started to be seen as socially acceptable. In 1912, 200 New York physicians pledged to donate their bodies to science in an attempt to diminish the stigma around body dissection.
Attitudes changed in the second half of the 20th century. In 1968, the National Conference of the Commissioners on Uniform State Laws, which seeks to introduce standardized legislation across states, passed the Uniform Anatomical Gift Act (UAGA), which made body donation a right. Today, all states have a version of the law.
The rising costs of funerals and burials have added economic incentive to changing cultural attitudes.
“I would much rather have money go to the kids and charities that I’m a part of than to have my husband spend thousands of dollars on as funeral,” Beal said. “That seems silly to me.”
It’s not only the attitudes of donors that have changed. The way doctors and medical students treat donated bodies has shifted as well. The medical profession once viewed donated cadavers with cold detachment. But starting in the 1970s, American medical students began to have memorial services for the bodies they dissected.
After a body is used for research, it is typically cremated. The cremation usually occurs one to two years after the donor has passed. After the cremation, students organize a ceremony of thanks for the families of the donor to show their appreciation. During the ceremony, the cremated remains are returned to the families.
“[The ceremony] is a beautiful thing for the purposes of sharing and thanks,” Laitman said. “Students are respectful and appreciative of the gift individuals have given to them.”
In addition to universities, companies such as Medcure, an FDA-accredited body donation facility based in Portland, Ore., accepts bodies for medical research. Medcure has five body collection centers located across the country and has partnerships with several funeral homes across the New York City area.
“As the baby boomer community continues to age, there’s a lot of orthopedic research that’s using cadaveric tissue to improve mobility for artificial hips or knee replacement,” said Tim Christy, marketing director for Medcure.
Christy said Medcure accepts donations from most parts of the country at no cost to the family. The only limitations are patients who die of diseases such as HIV or Hepatitis B or C. Other major companies that accept bodies for research purposes include Phoenix-based Science Care and BioGift, also based in Portland, Ore. — Suman Bhattacharyya
“Having the opportunity to learn from an individual’s body is a very special privilege. In many parts of the world the cadaver is called the first patient.”
“As the baby boomer community continues to age, there’s a lot of orthopedic research that’s using cadaveric tissue to improve mobility for artificial hips or knee replacement.”
Despite the relatively large proportion of New Yorkers who are registered organ donors, demand far outstrips the supply. Over 600 people in New York State died last year while waiting for organs.
The New York State Department of Health estimates that over 10,000 New Yorkers are currently on waiting lists for organ donations. Of them, over 8,000 await kidneys, 1,300 need livers and over 300 need hearts. By contrast, in 2013, 223 deceased individuals donated their organs in the Greater New York metropolitan area. The department estimates that one person, who can donate hearts, lungs, liver, kidneys, pancreas and intestines, can save up to eight lives. Meanwhile, by being a tissue donor (corneas, bone, skin, heart valves, tendons, veins, etc.) one person can improve 12 or more lives.
To be added to the list of organ donors, one must sign up for the state’s Donate Life Registry. In doing so, the individual gives legal consent for the recovery of organs, tissues and eyes for the purposes of research and transplants after he or she passes away. With a driver’s license, one can enroll electronically on the DMV website. Registration by mail is possible too, as is enrollment at the Department of Health’s Board of Elections. The process is entirely free of charge to participants. It is illegal to buy and sell organs, and the donor matching process is regulated by the federal government. Organs need to be harvested from dead bodies very soon after the individual has passed away in order to be useable.
Julie Rivera of LiveonNY, a federally-designated organ procurement organization for the New York City area, said the low number of organ donors is the result of restrictions on who can become an organ donor and a relatively low level of participation in donor programs across New York State. New York State is at the bottom of the pack when compared to other states when it comes to levels of participation in organ donation programs, said Rivera. In addition, many parts of New York City, including the Bronx, Queens and Brooklyn, have low levels of participation compared to state enrollment levels.
LiveonNY has a mandate to increase levels of participation in donor programs. Letting the public know how they can donate is essential to increased participation.
“There are still very real myths and misconceptions about organ donation,” said Rivera.
Popular myths include the view that poor service in hospitals is due to pressure to donate patients’ organs. Also, many fear that an open-casket funeral won’t be possible if organs are donated.
In addition, certain factors disqualify many people from donating their bodies. These include circumstances where an individual passes away outside of a hospital environment where there is insufficient oxygen flow, and situations where an individual has a disease that does not permit their organs to be used for donations, said Rivera. These include certain types of cancers, and HIV.
LiveonNY is undertaking a number of public outreach efforts to increase levels of participation in the Donate Life Registry.
“In order to educate the public, you need to have an integrated initiative,” said Rivera. “You need to be able to educate the public on a one-on-one basis.” — Suman Bhattacharyya
“There are still very real myths and misconceptions about organ donation.”
ORGAN DONATION KEY FACTS
- Every 10 minutes, someone is added to the national transplant waiting list.
- 22 people die per day on average waiting for a transplant.
- One organ donor can save eight lives.
- Over 120,00 people are on the national waiting list for organ donors.
- Source: United Network for Organ Sharing