How to donate a body to science in Australia

Donating your body to a institution such as a university can be a very generous act that will help with education and research in medicine and science. Depending on the programme you choose to donate to, the body (medically known as a cadaver) may be used for medical research or the training of medical professionals.

Many see body donation as a way to contribute to society once they have died. It also has the benefit of being cost-free when it comes to arranging transportation and the cremation of the body.

Body donation is different from organ donation, as the whole body will be used as opposed to only a single part. Various health laws in each state and territory of Australia govern the process, and there are a number of steps to be followed before the donation can occur.

 

The process of body donation

Step 1: Find a programme

In the case of body donation, there doesn’t exist one single register, as is the case for organ donation. You will have to seek out a programme and contact them directly.

Most donated bodies will be sent to a university, as they can be used to educate students studying medicine, nursing and pharmacology. The university may also have a research team that needs a cadaver for their work.

Each programme will have specific aims as well as requirements for donation. It’s a good idea to read about what the university needs bodies for. Below is a list of programmes for universities in Australia.

 

State

University

NSW

University of NSW

University of Sydney

University of Wollongong

University of New England

Macquarie University

University of Technology Sydney

Victoria

University of Melbourne

Queensland

University of Queensland

Griffith University

ACT

Australian National University

Western Australia

University of Western Australia

South Australia

University of Adelaide

Tasmania

University of Tasmania

 

Step 2: Contact university and complete forms

Once you’ve picked a programme, the next step is to contact the university and request the necessary forms.

It’s important to read carefully all the terms and conditions of the programme so that you are fully aware of what’s involved. You may also wish to discuss the details with your family, as they will be the ones to contact the university when you die.

 

Step 3: Await response

The university will get back to you with a response based off your application. They may not accept you into their program and there are several reasons why this may happen.

 

Step 4: Inform people

If you are accepted, it’s a good idea to let your family and friends know what is involved in the process once you die. Your family members and/or next-of-kin will need to know what they must do. Depending on your situation it’s also wise to advise your doctor.

Your will does not necessarily need to make mention of your plans for body donation, however you may include a short phrase if you wish. The university can provide you with one to write in.

 

Who can donate a body?

Each university will have its own guidelines on which bodies can and cannot be accepted for donation. A number of conditions may automatically exclude you from a programme, including:

  • Being under or over a certain weight
  • Infectious diseases such as AIDS, hepatitis, Ebola, whooping cough, yellow fever, etc.
  • Conditions that are poorly understood including Alzheimer’s or dementia

In addition to these, the university will often have a set catchment boundary and you need to both live and die in this zone in order to be considered.

If you suffer from a certain disease or condition and still wish for your body to be used for study, you can try contacting the relevant research organisation or support group for your condition.

Some state laws (such as in NSW) allow the next-of-kin to choose for your body to be donated to science so long as they know you wouldn’t have objected it. While this is the case, most universities will only accept a body that was registered pre-death.

 

Could the body be rejected at time of death?

Being registered with a programme doesn’t mean you have been accepted yet, and you should be aware of the possibility of rejection by the programme.  This may happen for several reasons:

  • You died outside the catchment area of the programme
  • The facilities of the university are at capacity and can’t accept any more bodies
  • Organs are absent (extracted after death for donation)
  • An autopsy was performed
  • The university was notified of the death too late

If the body is rejected, the university won’t be liable to cover any financial or logistical costs your family would then face. Given this, it’s important that you have a ‘plan B’ for what should happen in this scenario. This includes having money set aside for your funeral even if you are registered for body donation.

Organ donors can usually register for a body donation program as well, but if the organs are extracted before death, the body will be rejected for donation.

 

Could your family object to the donation of your body?

Despite providing your written consent and being registered in a programme, the donation could be stopped if your family objects to it. A university may not accept the body, so it is important that you let your family know that this is your wish.

 

What happens at time of death?

The process for each programme will be different, however your family will be required to contact the university and advise them of the death. The body will then be collected by funeral directors contracted by the university and transported to their location.

 

What happens when you donate your body to medical science?

Provided that the body isn’t excluded from the programme for any reason, it will then be embalmed and the blood will be replaced with a special fluid that helps to preserve and disinfect the body.

The use of the body will then depend on the needs of the university. The most common use will be by students learning about human anatomy. Certain tissues may be preserved for later study or research.

 

Can you still have a funeral or memorial service before the body is donated?

Holding a traditional funeral service will be complicated by the fact that the body needs to be transported to the university as soon as possible. Each programme will have a time limit (usually 24 hours) for its arrival and may reject the body if it arrives late.

A memorial service can be held immediately after the death. While your body will not be there, family and friends are still able to gather to pay tribute to your life and share together their sorrow.

Give some thought as to whether donating your body may cause emotional, cultural or religious complications. It could feel like a rushed farewell for your family.

 

Will you have a funeral or memorial service after the research or teaching is completed?

Once the university has finished studying the body, they will normally pay for a simple burial or cremation, depending on your prior arrangements at time of registration. This will save you and your family from having to fund the internment or the cremation. However, there are some factors to consider:

  • The funeral director and crematorium or burial site will be at the discretion of the university, it’s highly likely you will not be able to choose these
  • Modifying the service to include anything beyond what the institute already pays may incur additional fees
  • A brief, simple chapel service may be included however it may be non-denominational
  • The burial or cremation may not happen for a long time after the death. Some medical studies last for 2 weeks, others up to 8 years.

 

What is the cost of donating your body to science?

In most cases, the university will cover all costs including transportation and either cremation or burial once studies are completed. This can be of huge benefit to both you and your family.

If the body is rejected, however, the next-of-kin will be responsible for alternative arrangements and covering the associated costs.

 

Can you change your mind?

Yes, the programme will have an established process in place in case you no longer wish for your body to be donated, and you’ll be able to withdraw at any time.

Donating your body to science is a selfless act that will benefit generations to come as such a contribution to science is invaluable. If you proceed down this path, always keep in mind the need for a plan B. It’s also important to make sure your family are aware of both your intentions and their responsibilities so to make the process as stress-free and smooth as possible.

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