Whole body donation can be both a gift to the medical community as well as a cost-effective way for families to provide final arrangements to their loved one. Some people register as a donor prior to death with national organizations such as Science Care or MedCure. Next of kin can also make arrangements for body donation at time of death. When working with a prospective donor or their family, there are factors the client and next of kin must consider.
Not every body offered for donation is ultimately accepted. Even if someone has pre-registered as a whole body donor, there is a screening process completed at time of death. Acceptance rates will vary depending on the organization, but in general, bodies with a very low or very high BMI, have HIV/AIDS, or Hepatitis B or C are not eligible for donation.
Some metastatic cancers or infections such as MRSA or sepsis may preclude an organization from accepting a body for donation. When working with someone who has elected whole body donation, it is important to encourage them to have a backup plan (such as direct cremation) should they not be accepted at time of death. If your client is close to death, it is appropriate to contact the donation organization to notify them of impending death of a registered donor and complete the screening. It is not required to pre-register; however, given the volume of paperwork, screening, and consent, as well as the risk of not being accepted, it is wise to encourage families to have a contingency plan in place.
There are a number of state and national organizations for whole body donation. Larger universities in your area may have donation options. It is helpful to research and contact different organizations, so you may become familiar with the paperwork, timeframes for consent, and have any brochures or literature on hand to provide to your clients. Having options, knowing if an organization accepts donations with certain conditions such as metastatic cancers, will be a benefit should you have a client who feels strongly about body donation but has a condition which may preclude them from some donation locations.
Not every whole body donation entity returns the cremains to the next of kin. Some may ask for up to a year to return them to the family. For some families, it is important to have this tangible representation of their loved one, so this length of time may be unacceptable. Be sure to understand and inform your client of this as it may impact their bereavement.
With a traditional use of a funeral home, the next of kin typically receives several copies of the certified death certificate with the cost of services and the option to purchase additional copies if needed. Some whole body donation organizations offer one or no copy at all, which would require the family to visit the county records department and purchase them directly.
Many professionals using this resource are in a position of planning ahead and may provide hospice, palliative, or serious illness care services. With regards to organ donation, we do not often think of people dying a natural death in the home or in a facility as being appropriate organ donors. With proper communication and planning, their desire to donate organs or tissue can be honored. For an organ to be used, it generally needs to be harvested at time of death, ensuring oxygenated blood has been provided to it for as long as possible. This is often done by using life support to keep the physical body alive to allow time for the operating room, surgeons, transportation, and an organ recipient to be in place. This process may seem contrary to the peaceful death we imagine for our clients, but with 145 million individuals registered to be organ donors, it can be helpful to ask your clients if they are registered. If so, contact the Organ Procurement Organization in your area to notify them of your clients and their preference. They will subsequently screen and work with the clients and/or next of kin for next steps, as appropriate. Certain tissues can be harvested up to 24 hours after death, so even if your clients cannot be an organ donor they could still be eligible to donate skin, heart valves, and corneas. To find the Organ Procurement Organization in your area, visit: https://www.organdonor.gov/awareness/organizations/local-opo.html
Whole body donation is an altruistic and low-cost option for body disposition while helping to educate medical professionals and helping to understand the human body and find cures to diseases. Contact the organizations in your region and request literature so you have it on hand. By educating yourself on national and regional organizations for whole body donation and their individual policies regarding donation, you will be able to empower your patients and families to have options and autonomy as well as appropriately prepare them for contingencies such as not being accepted at time of death.
Kassner, C. (2019, June 15). Organ donation and hospice. Retrieved from https://www.nationalhospiceanalytics.com
Health Resources and Services Administration. (n.d.). Find your local organ procurement organization. Retrieved from https://www.organdonor.gov/awareness/organizations/local-opo.html
Health Resources and Services Administration. (n.d.). How organ donation works. Retrieved from https://www.organdonor.gov/about/process.html MedCure. (n.d.). Frequently asked questions about body donation. Retrieved from https://medcure.org/donor/body-donation-faqs/