How to Arrange for a Body Donation

An expressed desire

If the person in your care has expressed a desire to have his whole body donated -- called a whole-body donation because the body must be intact, except for the possible donation of eyes -- to a local medical school for research and instruction, the procedures for donating differ depending on the institution.

Some require that a donor must personally express the wish to make a body donation while still alive and of sound mind; others allow next of kin to choose the option after a death has occurred.

Generally, after using the body, the institution will cremate it and bury the remains, called cremains , in a designated plot within a year after the donation. However, the body or cremains can often be returned to family members or another designated individual if this is specified in advance.

The law prohibits institutions from buying bodies, but there's usually little to no expense to the survivors when a body is donated. Most schools will pay for transporting and disposing of the body, although it is a good idea to verify the policy to avoid unexpected charges.

When a body donation may be rejected

Even if someone has requested that his body be donated, the medical institution has the legal right to reject the body at the time of donation (although as the need for donated bodies grows, fewer are being rejected).

There is no upper age limit for donating a body for anatomical study. Still, bodies are sometimes rejected because of the way the death occurred or the condition of the body.

For example, bodies won't usually be accepted if the death:

  • Occurred during surgery.
  • Was caused by a contagious or communicable disease.
  • Was due to suicide or homicide.

And institutions will usually reject a body that:

  • Is extremely obese or emaciated.
  • Has been autopsied.
  • Has been embalmed.
  • Has begun to decompose.
  • Has had organs or tissues other than eyes removed from it.

If death occurs out of the country, it may be possible to follow through on the donation wishes there. It's  helpful if there is written documentation that the traveler favored body donation at the time of death.

A list of medical schools currently accepting whole-body donations is maintained by Living Bank .

Mortuary schools as alternatives to medical schools

If a local medical school rejects a body donation or has a policy of not accepting donations that haven't been arranged in advance, a School of Mortuary Science that needs bodies to help teach about embalming and preparing for viewing may accept the donation. Bodies donated to these schools won't be dissected, and the cremated remains will generally be returned to survivors within a few weeks, after study.

A list of colleges and universities with mortuary science concentrations is available through the American Board of Funeral Service Education .


Barbara Kate Repa

Barbara Kate Repa, a lawyer and journalist, has devoted her career to editing and writing about legal issues for consumers. See full bio