Increase in People Donating Their Bodies to Science

August 19th 2016

Lucy Tiven

We're all going to kick the bucket sooner or later: About that you don't have much choice. But you do have options when it comes to dealing with your corpse.

There's been a surge of interest recently in one previously unpopular after-death option: donating your body to science, according to the Associated Press.

The AP reported Wednesday:

"The University of Minnesota said it received more than 550 cadavers last year, up from 170 in 2002. The University at Buffalo got almost 600 last year, a doubling over the past decade. Others that reported increases include Duke University, the University of Arizona, and state agencies in Maryland and Virginia. ScienceCare, a national tissue bank, now receives 5,000 cadavers a year, twice as many as in 2010."

Cadaver donation is an inarguably nice thing to do. It helps medical schools teach the next generation of doctors and surgeons and helps doctors conduct research and potentially find cures to diseases. But these benefits have been well known among the general public for quite some time. So what's changed?

Medical professionals told the AP that several factors may account for the recent surge in cadaver donations.

The cost of funerals likely plays a role.

"Funerals are expensive," Mark Zavoyna, the operations manager for Georgetown University's body donation program, told the AP. "That certainly has something to do with it."

There are only five U.S. states in which the average traditional funeral costs less than $6,000, according to Parting, a website on death care. (ATTN: previously reported on the cost of dying.)

Cremation is also pricey, averaging $2,891 in Arkansas, the U.S. state where it is cheapest, and $4,039 in Chicago, the city where cremation is the most expensive. Even direct cremation, which involves no ceremony, still averages out at more than $1,400 on the low end; it can run as high as $2,000 in more expensive areas.

Once someone decides to donate her body, it can spur others to follow suit. "Of course, it almost has this snowball effect, where you get five people to donate, and then their families tell another 25 people," Zavoyna added.

There's also been an erosion of the stigma that once surrounded cadaver donation.

"Not too long ago, it was taboo," Zavoyna said. "Now we have thousands of registered donors."

Has peer pressure played a role in the trend? Hey, it's worth considering. People used to do all kinds of nutty things with dead bodies because society deemed it business as usual. Over the course of history, certain cultures have eaten the dead, fed them to wild animals, and dug them up to dance around the bones, Gizmodo reported.

People also seem to be more comfortable with the "ick factor" of imagining young doctors dissecting your corpse (or that of a family member).

"To put it quite bluntly, you have to realize that they are going to cut the body of your loved one apart," said Jean Larson, whose husband, a science teacher, left his body to the University of Minnesota. "That's hard."

Larson said her husband's choice was difficult to accept at first. But now she also intends to donate her body. "This is the most generous donation we can make," she said.

It would be a leap to say that donating your cadaver will be the norm in the foreseeable future. But there's certainly a sociocultural element at play, and donation is becoming more mainstream.

Part of that has to do with religion, director of Maryland's State Anatomy Board Ronn Wade told the AP.

In the past, people objected to cremation and donating their bodies for medical purposes on religious grounds. But today's Millennials are far more distrustful of religious institutions than previous generations.

Though science and religion don't necessarily have to be at odds, the shift is certainly good for science. Human bodies are far more useful for medical tutelage and research than animal ones, for obvious reasons.

"There's no substitute for the real thing, because, ultimately, these people are going to be taking care of patients," Duke surgery professor Michael Zenn told the AP. "It's just a priceless donation."

[h/t AP]