What Happens When You Donate Your Body to Science?
By the end of 2015, Australia will have welcomed its first human body farm, giving you a new option for what to do with your body after you die.
By the end of 2015, Australia will have welcomed its first human body farm. The facility, which is the first of its kind in the Southern Hemisphere, will give researchers the chance to observe how human bodies decay in the unique Australian climate, assisting criminal investigations around the country. The human body farm also gives Australians an additional option on how they can have their body disposed of, should they choose to donate it to science. Select universities take up to 100 bodies a year as part of their voluntary donor programs, aiding important medical education and research. That's a decent number of us who believe in contributing to scientific education. But what exactly happens when you give your body to science?
Well, if you've filled out the consent forms, submitted it to one of the 12 Australian Universities that operate an accredited body donation program, and your next of kin has given you their blessing, then your corpse will be taken to your chosen university. Most universities require you be delivered within three days after your death.
If you have a transmissible disease, are clinically obese, underweight, have had any organs removed, or if the university is at capacity, sorry you don't pass go. "If someone has had their organs removed, preserving the body is difficult," says Doug Gillespie, manager of Newcastle University's body donor program. "Emaciated bodies don't have much muscle left and it just doesn't make it simple for teaching purposes, while bigger bodies are harder to deal with. If you get a body that's over 110kg and you embalm it with 20 to 30 litres of fluid, it becomes difficult to move around."
If you've made it past all the conditions of entry—congrats, your body will now be taken to the preservation room where the embalming process will begin. At this point you no longer have a name. Instead, you're assigned a unique identification number. Embalming is a standardised process used both across Australian body donor programs and funeral homes to prevent organ tissue from deteriorating. An embalmer will start preserving your body by pumping a 70 per cent formaldehyde solution through your circulatory system, which, if done by machine, will take three to four hours. The other option is the gravity method, where a container of embalming fluid is hoisted above your body and let run through your circulatory system. This technique takes a few days.
Check out our documentary on the University of Tennessee's body farm from a few years back.
The second method of preservation is what Doug calls "fresh frozen", where your body is sealed in a plastic bag and frozen immediately. "It doesn't sound too good but it's just that the surgeons in training like cadavers to be as lifelike as possible, and when you embalm a body, it's good at preserving the tissue but it also hardens it a little bit," says Doug.
The third option that happens after embalming is plastination, whereby fluid from a smaller dissection (eg. your hand) is drawn out and replaced by plastic, leaving a real but semi-plasticised model. "They're quite good because they last for a long time," says Doug. "They're not soft and wet like a real dissection, so students won't get grossed out by them too much."
Once your body leaves the preservation table, it will then go straight into storage until class resumes. If you were embalmed, a class of medical students will dissect you and learn about the human anatomy. If you were fresh frozen, you'll be thawed out and surgical students will train with your parts, so they can perform life-saving operations in the future. Either way, you'll be boosting the brainpower of young minds.
Though universities say it is a rare occurrence, there is a possibility that your medical student relative might end up dissecting you in class. However, the hope is that such a relative would have told the university that they knew someone in the donor program beforehand, in which case your body could be moved to another university. In most cases, you'll be dissected within two to four years, but you might be kept indefinitely, depending on the institution. But as with how your body is preserved, these are options you choose when signing up to a donor program.
When science students are done learning the wonderful secrets of your body, your remains will be either cremated or buried, depending on what you consented to. You can choose for your ashes to be returned to your family, or be kept in the plots of the University, where you can haunt future med students forever. Alternatively, you can opt to be a model specimen by allowing your body parts to be displayed in the university's anatomy museum.
Follow Emma on Twitter: @emsydo