Most medical schools need donations of whole bodies for research and instruction -- and shortages may be especially acute at osteopathic and chiropractic schools. The reason they are called whole body donations is that the donation will be rejected if any of the organs have been removed from the body.
After using a donated body for study or instruction, a medical institution will usually cremate it and bury or scatter the cremains in a specified plot. If you request it, however, the remains can be returned to family members for burial or scattering -- usually within a year or two. Be sure to ask for this at the time you make your donation arrangements.
No medical institution is allowed to pay your family for your body, but there is usually little or no expense to the survivors when a body is donated. When a death occurs, most medical schools will pay to transport the body, as well as pay for any final disposition of the remains. Ask the nearest medical institution that accepts body donations whether it has specific arrangements for transporting and disposing of bodies to avoid any unexpected charges.
If you want to donate your body, it's best to contact your chosen medical institution and make arrangements in advance. However, some institutions will accept whole body donations immediately after death with the written permission of your health care agent or next of kin. (To learn more about health care documents and naming a health care agent, see the article The Living Will and Power of Attorney for Health Care: An Overview.)
If you live in a state with no medical school or one that has very strict requirements for whole body donations, you may find out more about your body donation options from the National Anatomical Service, which operates 24-hour phone services at 800-727-0700.
After you have made arrangements or decided on your wishes, it's important to discuss them with those closest to you. If your loved ones don't know what you want, they may thwart your wishes -- even inadvertently -- after your death. It's best to put your plans or wishes in writing in a health care document (such as your living will) or other document that clearly states your preferences. See Final Arrangements FAQ to learn more about what instructions to leave for your family and how.
For information on donating organs, tissues, or body parts instead of your whole body, see the article The Organ Donor: A Guide.
For More Information
To learn more about body and organ donation, and other final arrangements, see Get It Together: Organize Your Records So Your Family Won't Have To, by Melanie Cullen with Shae Irving (Nolo).