Dear Surly Amy,
I watch a lot of those forensic cop shows, and while I know they’re mostly fantasy, it got me thinking: what if I wanted to donate my body to science? How would I go about what? Who would I talk to and what would happen to my body? What sort of experiments would be performed on it? I’m already an organ donor, but what about the rest of me?
~Watches Too Many Cop Shows
Dear Watches Too Many Cop Shows,
This is an excellent question. I have often said I want to donate my body to science when I die but I never really pondered what would happen to it or how to actually go about it. And I think it’s hight time we got some answers.
Lucky for both of us one of our very own Skepchicks happens to be a graduate student of forensic science! That’s right our very own master-of-the-morning-quickies is also our go to crime scene investigator-for-reals.
I asked Amanda to give us the low down on our remains and here is what she had to say:
If you want to donate specifically to a body farm, there are other ones trying to get going besides Tennessee*. Check out any school that has a forensic science program and see if they’ve got anything in the works. My school’s working towards one, but we’re still a ways off. And bones are always needed for forensic anthro programs.
Body donation differs from state to state. In Mass, you contact the medical school you want to be donated to specifically. For example, the people who run the anatomy lab/morgue at my school are the same ones who talk with every person contacts the school wanting to donate their body. In other states, it’s handled by a board or the state, I believe, that then distributes the bodies amongst medical schools.Whatever system is in place where you live, you HAVE to let your family know your plans. If they don’t agree to it once you’re dead, then the school (state, board, whatever) can’t take your body. They also have to know to alert the school ASAP after your death.
At my school, most bodies are used for the general anatomy lab that all the med students have to take. So throughout the course, the body is dissected bit by bit as the students move on to new body systems/structures. Once the school is done with the body, it usually goes back to the family (cremation is paid for by the school in our case). If the family doesn’t want it or there is no family, the body will be cremated and buried by the school. But as Mary Roach points out, not all donated bodies go to general anatomy labs. They might be used to practice plastic surgery, for example, and I know some people are bothered by that idea.
If you’re donating to a body farm, you’re going to be used to study the decay of the human body post-mortem, obviously. So they might do all sorts of things to you.
I have worked with several donated cadavers and I can tell you that in my personal experience, students are incredibly respectful and grateful. It’s an indescribable experience, getting to learn from an actual human body. At least for me, because I keep trying to describe it and fumbling over my words. All I can say is that I personally very much want to donate my body because I want to be able to give that experience to other people.
One other note. Quite a few of the Skepchicks, including Amanda, recommended a great book called, Stiff – The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach. So do check that book out and call your local medical schools/colleges with forensic programs to find out even more.
Thanks for the great question!
*Featured image is the cover art from the book, Stiff.
*The “body farm” in Tennessee is a research facility run by the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. More info can be found here.
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