This guide will give you some ideas for holding a funeral for someone who’s decided to donate their body to science. It covers how you might hold an end-of-life event without your loved one’s body present.
Why do people leave their body to science?
People choose to leave their body to science for lots of different reasons
Some common reasons include:
They want to do something for the good of society
They have a rare condition and want to contribute to curing it
They work in medicine and have benefitted from other people donating their own bodies to science
They do not mind what happens to their body after they die, and so they want others to put it to good purpose
If a loved one has chosen to leave their body to science, you might experience a mix of feelings
Some people might feel proud of their loved one’s decision. Other people might feel upset or angry, especially if their loved one did not share their wishes before they died. It’s also normal to feel lots of feelings at the same time, or even none at all.
If you’re finding it difficult to cope with your feelings, it might be helpful to speak with someone close to you.
Donating your body to science is different to donating your organs after you die
Donating your organs usually means the doctor removes the organs from your body, and transplants them into someone else’s body. This happens very soon after death, meaning your body tends to be returned to your loved ones shortly afterwards - typically within a few days.
Donating your body to science means your whole body is stored in a medical school, often for a number of years. It tends to be used for research or training.
How to donate your body to science
If you want to donate your body to science, you need to give explicit written and witnessed permission before you die.
To do this, you’ll normally need to get in touch with your local medical school. They will be able to provide guidance on the forms they need you to sign.
Because of this, you cannot make the decision to donate your loved one’s body to science on their behalf, even if they verbally told you that’s what they wanted.
What happens when your loved one dies?
It’s important that your loved one’s body gets to the right place as quickly as possible after they die
Your loved one will have left their body to a specific medical school, who will be able to advise on what to do. But they will normally need you to get in touch as soon as possible after the death.
If there is a delay in getting your loved one’s body to the medical school, they might ask you to contact a hospital or Chapel of Rest. They will be able to store your loved one’s body in a room with a low temperature until the medical school can accept them.
Some medical schools will be able to transport your loved one to the mortuary themselves, especially if you live locally. They might ask that you cover the costs of this.
The medical school will not always be able to accept your loved one’s body
This could be because:
Too much time has passed since they died
They died with a condition that can be passed onto other people, like Septicaemia or HIV
They died with a wound (e.g. from an operation) that had not yet healed
They need to have a post-mortem
The mortuary does not have space for new bodies at that time
You could make backup funeral plans, in case the medical school cannot accept your loved one’s body.
When your loved one dies, the medical school might ask you for some information about your loved one, such as their recent medical history. This can help them make a decision on whether they can accept your loved one's body more quickly.
The mortuary staff will preserve your loved one’s body as quickly as possible
This usually means either embalming (where they use chemicals to preserve your loved one’s body) or freezing (where they keep your loved one at a very low temperature). Which option they choose will depend on their plans and the resources they have available.
This section includes descriptions of what could happen to your loved one’s body in a research or training setting, which some people might find distressing.
What happens to their body
The medical school will usually keep your loved one’s body for two to three years
But this could vary depending on lots of different factors, including:
When your loved one dies
How much storage the mortuary has
How many people work or study at the medical school
Whether your loved one had any medical conditions
The medical school will normally be able to advise on how long they will have your loved one’s body for.
The medical school will typically use your loved one’s body in research or training
This could include things like:
Teaching students about anatomy
Training professionals in surgery
Discovering new things about the human body
The people working with your loved one’s body will treat them respectfully. If they dissect them (meaning cutting their body up), they will normally keep all the different parts of their body together.
When they’ve finished working with your loved one’s body, the medical school will normally cremate them
The medical school might also hold a special memorial service for all the people who have donated their bodies. Staff, students and the donors’ loved ones will often attend this event.
You can usually ask that they return your loved one’s ashes to you, for you to store, scatter, or hold your own memorial event.
If you’d prefer for the medical school to return your loved one’s body to you when they’ve finished working with it, you can usually request this upon donation. This means you’ll be able to bury or cremate them privately.
If you choose to cremate or bury your loved one’s body privately after their body has been used by the medical school, you’ll normally still need to arrange and pay for this yourself. You might also need to pay to transport your loved one’s body to the appropriate location.
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Arranging the funeral
You can hold a funeral without your loved one’s body
This can be a good way of remembering or celebrating their life, without waiting for the medical school to return their body.
Some people worry that they’ll have to compromise on some parts of the funeral if their loved one’s body isn’t there. But you can hold a funeral exactly as you would otherwise. The only difference is that your loved one’s body will not have yet reached its final resting place.
Instead of cremating or burying your loved one, you could mark their death in other ways. This could include:
Cremating or burying a photo of them
Having a coffin present at the event, and filling it with their most-loved belongings
Sharing happy memories of their life
Some people might use the end-of-life event to celebrate their loved one’s donation. This could include things like:
Sharing their loved one’s reasons for donating their body to science
Inviting someone from the medical school to their loved one’s funeral
Sharing some information about the impact of their loved one’s donation
Fundraising for the medical school, for a research charity
Some of the funeral guests might have questions about your loved one’s decision
Some people will be happy to answer any questions that their guests might have. Others might find this upsetting or stressful, especially if their loved one’s wishes came as a surprise.
If you’d prefer not to discuss their donation, you could state this on the invitation. People tend to be understanding when it comes to the preferences of the people close to the person who’s died.
If you prefer, you could direct guests to relevant charities and organisations, like the Human Tissue Authority.
Your religious beliefs, or the beliefs of your guests or the person who’s died, might not normally allow for body donation. If this is the case, you could find it helpful to speak with a celebrant. This is someone who specialises in arranging end-of-life events, often working closely with people of a particular faith background. They’ll be able to advise you on how you could handle any potential conflicts.
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If you ask the medical school to return your loved one’s remains, you could hold a memorial service when they arrive
This could be a good way of remembering their life, or commemorating their death. Some people find this gives them a sense of closure.
But you do not have to mark their return if you do not want to. Some people will prefer to cremate or bury their loved one without a ceremony. You might consider a direct cremation, where your loved one has a cremation without any guests.
If you have any concerns, you could speak with the medical school your loved one has donated their body to
They will normally be well-equipped to speak with their donors’ loved ones, including offering advice on end-of-life events. They may also be able to refer you to relevant guidance and answer questions you might have about the practicalities of donation.