Ask Surly Amy and Amanda: Donate My Body to Science

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.

Thanks, Amanda!

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.

Got a question you would like some Surly-Skepchick advice on? Send it in! We won’t publish your real name, unless you want us to and creative pseudonyms get bonus points! Just use the contact link on the top left of the page.

Amy Roth

Amy Davis Roth (aka Surly Amy) is a multimedia, science-loving artist who resides in Los Angeles, California. She makes Surly-Ramics and is currently in love with pottery. Daily maker of art and leader of Mad Art Lab. Support her on Patreon. Tip Jar is here.

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  1. Interestingly, this is the second “body donation” discussion I’ve seen on the internet today, and my husband and I were just discussing it last night. He knows I want my body to be used however necessary after death -including organ and tissue donations, which awesomely do not preclude a body farm donation afterward. I’ve contacted the body farm, filled out all their forms, and carry a card in my wallet. I also mention it whenever the topic of “after death decisions” comes up, so that more people are aware of the need, and of my wishes.
    Here’s an FAQ for the University of Tennessee at Knoxville’s Forensic Anthropology Center, if anyone’s interested: :)

  2. I don’t particularly care if my body is used for science experiments, practicing plastic surgery, or something like the Body Worlds project (which I think would be improved by having bodies that were voluntarily donated rather than purchased from a disinterested third party post mortem), as long as it’s doing something useful.

    1. Body Worlds is actually the only one of those exhibitions that does use donated bodies – it’s Bodies: The Exhibition which uses possibly the least ethical source they could have come up with, ‘unclaimed’ bodies from the Chinese police.

    1. Thank you! That was the one I was trying to think of when I replied to Amy, but I couldn’t remember and didn’t have time to research.

  3. This is actually a super interesting topic to me, partially because I have a conundrum of my own: I really, truly want to donate my body to be mummified. It’s a bizarre thing (according to most people), but I think it’s a very valuable thing to study and I would love to do it. Problem is, I can’t find any means to make it happen.

    The only exclusion to it is that I’d like to donate my brain to a research facility or school that would be interested in having my fun mental and physical disorders to investigate.

    1. We had a talk about brain research at the Atlanta Skeptics in the Pub a year or so ago. I asked the speaker about donating one’s brain and was informed that aside from gross studies of brain structure, in order for your brain to be useful for more intrricate research you pretty much have to arrange things well in advance and they would need to collect your brain very soon after death. I have the impression that that was something llke ”within an hour’, but don’t recall exactly. Maria might remember better than I do.

      On the topic of donating one’s body as a cadaver for medical students, I”ve often joked that if my death was such that I had a week or so to prepare, I’d have “Study Hard and Good Luck!” tattooed on my chest for the students to read as they worked on my cadaver.

  4. One thing to think about is that you generally can’t be an organ donor and donate your body to science.

    Do you help people on organ donor lists who need organs now? Do you help train medical students, etc? Might depend on the state of your body – if you have an illness that disqualifies you as an organ donor, you could probably still donate your body.

    Interesting topic. I’ve been reading and hearing about this a lot lately. Maybe more people are starting to be altruistic with their bodies once they are done with them (or at least sparing funeral costs for their families).

    1. Especially as you get older, your organs get less and less viable as transplant options. This varies by organ and health, of course. A lot of people are surprised at how old you can be and still be a good candidate for, say, kidney donation.

      So sign up for both, then you have a higher chance of doing something helpful with your body.

  5. I second Mary Roach’s Stiff book recommendation!

    Also, Wikipedia has a list of facilities with body farms: The ones already mentioned here have been University of Tennessee and Texas State. There’s another one in Texas, in Huntsville at Sam Houston State University. There’s also a facility at Western Carolina University. There is one being planned at California University of Pennsylvania.

    I need to fill out my paperwork to donate my body to one of these, but I haven’t decided if I want it to go to TSU or SHSU. Yay anthropology!

  6. One little note to add, as I just heard something on this topic the other day, is that most anatomy programs don’t want you if you’re overweight. The body’s just too hard to work with.

    I have no idea how the body farms feel about this.

    1. I don’t know about other body farms, but the one at TSU will only reject bodies if they have been infected with certain types of infectious diseases such as HIV/AIDS, TB, etc. I’ve never heard anyone from there say that bodies are rejected for other reasons, but it certainly is possible on a case-by-case basis. I would think it would be in the interest of the body farm to have a diverse variety of body types since they are studying how bodies decompose with the goal of informing criminal investigators.

      1. I downloaded the paperwork from TSU a few weeks ago, and am in the process of filling it out. I believe that they cannot take anyone over 500 pounds, but other than that, you’re fine. In the FAQ, they said that you can be an organ donor and still be accepted. Also, your remains are curated indefinitely after they are done with you, which is kind of cool. I’ve always wanted to be curated! :)

    2. “Too hard to work with” … well, that’s going to happen in real life. Shouldn’t they be working on bodies that mimic real life? Isn’t that the *point*?

      1. They said for beginning students it was too hard to get through the layers of fat. Plus there was the problem of moving the body around.

        But I’m only repeating what they said, and I can’t remember off the top of my head where I heard it.

          1. Also, you have to remember that the general anatomy lab is usually the very first encounter a medical student has with dissection of human anatomy. Fat really does make it more difficult to dissect a body and to see certain structures, so it makes sense to not create an extra barrier to learning for the students by rejecting overweight donations.

            Those students will go on to further training, especially in whatever specialty they choose, so they will have many more opportunities to “deal with” bodies of all shapes and sizes *after* they have the basics down.

    3. Really? I’m sure it varies from place to place, but I’ve definitely seen and worked with some overweight cadavers. Granted, they were what I’d call averagely overweight.

      And again, I’m sure it varies from place to place, but I doubt obesity would be a problem to a body farm. If anything, they may even be running a specific experiment that requires obese individuals.

  7. When my stepmother died from COPD-related pneumonia, her body, which she’d arranged to donate, was picked up from the hospital within about eight hours of her death. The intent was for further study of COPD. My father has made similar arrangements for his own body (he, too, has COPD), and his companion is aware of them.

    My husband wants his body to be a cadaver, so I guess he and I should set that up now while we’re middle-aged and healthy.

  8. I third the recommendation of ‘Stiff’ by Mary Roach. The only part of the whole book that made me feel a bit queasy was the swapping heads chapter. I hope that’s not too much of a spoiler. Did anyone else have trouble with that part?

  9. Just to be clear, you can’t donate your body to science AND be an organ donor?

    I would like to do the former, but I feel the latter is going to more useful to society.

    [Maybe not my liver]

    1. See what I’ve written above, but again, it’s going to vary from place to place.

      A lot of things can disqualify you as an organ donor but fewer (or less likely) things disqualify you as a body donor. So sign up for both and you’ll have a much higher chance of having your body be helpful.

      Also, keep in mind that the manner in which you die affects your organ donation possibilities, too.

      1. Yes, if you don’t die in a hospital (or end up there immediately afterward) it’s very unlikely that you’ll be eligible to donate.

  10. In a slightly off-topic question, has anybody seen the British TV show The Body Farm? It’s a fairly straight-forward procedural that is set on a body farm (though that hasn’t been put to much use) but it tends to have a bit of a twist at the end, really quite nicely done. I just found out it was a spin-off of a show called Walking the Dead that I now must *ahem* track down.

    1. I’ve never seen The Body Farm, but my local PBS station is currently showing re-runs of Waking the Dead, starring Trevor Eve, who my friend calls Britain’s answer to William Shatner. In Waking the Dead, Tara Fitzgerald plays the pathologist (they’ve been through 3 of them) who has her own body farm to play with, though they use it rarely.

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