Fall 2001: A Gift To Medical Education and The Next Generation

by Jean T.D. Bandler

Most end of life choices usually focus on financial wills, health care directives, and decisions on burial or cremation. Many of us may forget about the most useful bequest of all: the gift of one’s own body. While organ and tissue donation has garnered a great deal of publicity, there is still a desperate need for donors.

Less publicized is the continuing need for bodies for medical research and education. Both Yale Medical School and the University of Connecticut Medical School report ongoing demands for bodies, particularly for anatomy classes.

Body donation meets the FCA principles of a “meaningful, affordable, dignified” decision. The gift is essential for medical teaching and learning. As one Yale medical student wrote: “What we learned is due to her and could not have come from textbooks. She was our first teacher in medicine, and we learned more from her than from any other teacher during our first year in medical school.”

Body donation is clearly affordable and, indeed, of no cost to the donor or kin as the medical school will cover the cost of transportation to the school and the subsequent cremation.  The return of the ashes, if requested, is usually paid by the estate.

Contrary to some fears, body donation is also a dignified, respectful process. As one student wrote: “we had the privilege of working with the donor and appreciate her decision to help the donor and appreciate her decision to help  us learn. We want you to know that we have the utmost respect for her. Not all of us are religious, but those that are  prayed for her. When the course ended, we sent a check in her memory to the Leukemia Society to show our gratitude.”

Some medical conditions preclude acceptance for body donation, so it is a good idea to have an alternate plan, perhaps direct burial or cremation. Conditions that make a body unacceptable include infectious disease, (small pox, AIDS, measles, hepatitis) autopsy, severe accident, obesity, or out-of-state death.

Our FCA office has forms for both Yale and U. Conn. Medical Schools as well as a brief pamphlet on body donation. We recommend that those considering this gift, complete and send in the form to the designated school,  probably the nearest school. At death, the medical school should be contacted directly and it will arrange for a medical examiner to examine the body and, if suitable, to arrange for transportation. There is no need to contact or to use a funeral home, a factor which tends to make morticians oppose donations. If requested in advance, the ashes are returned to the family after the body has been used and cremated. Otherwise, the medical school will arrange a communal burial at the school.

Those who decide to donate their bodies to a medical school agree that this is an affordable, dignified, and meaningful choice. As one widow said, “He did his final thing for humanity and it was a wonderful thing to do.” Another donor noted both the altruistic and practical motives: “My soul will be gone and maybe my body can help some other people. Besides, it is the ultimate in recycling and it?s a cheap way to get out of this world.”