Here's What Actually Happens When You Donate Your Body to Science
Answers to all the questions you've always wanted to ask
Walking into the anatomical donations storage area at the University of Michigan, you might think you’ve taken a wrong turn into an industrial kitchen. It’s a well-lit, windowless space filled with immaculate stainless steel trays. But it’s here, at what is essentially a morgue on university property, that you’ll find those who chose to donate their bodies to science. The man behind the scenes, Dean Mueller, director of the Anatomical Donations Program, handles the legal, ethical, and logistical sides of things. He also fields lots of questions from families and potential donors.
GIVE: How do you store the bodies?
Dean Mueller: Every donor is on their own, on a morgue table, on a tray that’s moveable. It’s very simple, stainless steel. During an anatomy course, they’re wrapped in sheets — for disinfection and for dignity to the donor. We’re here to promote science and education, but we’re here to promote it in a respectful way. It’s simple; it’s not Hollywood. It’s very well-lit, very well-ventilated. It’s a very respectful situation.
Nothing will stop a body from breaking down, but embalming will stop that for many, many years. We have the ability to preserve donors for extended amounts of time. We keep them normally for 18 months, but we also have donors that have been here for 10 years. There are times that we’ll do that. How long a body lasts depends on a lot of things: temperature, sanitation, etc.
What if you sign up to be a donor but then change your mind?
If you decide you don’t want to do this, simply let us know that you’re no longer interested. We definitely don’t want anyone here who doesn’t want to be here. Some people will pre-register to donate, then they get remarried and their spouse is uncomfortable, and we just take them off the list. Life changes: As some people get older, they say, “Eh, might not be such a bad thing.” We’re not trying to hurt people; we’re trying to help humanity.
What if a donor has stipulations? Like, “Don’t touch my face”?
That’s a very common question. If they said, “You can’t use my right leg,” I might see if I can do it without using that right leg. If that really bothers you, then you probably shouldn’t donate, because if we did it by accident, it would be doing them a disservice. We’ve had people who work for the auto industry say they want to be used in automotive research. It doesn’t always work out, though. They might be looking for females, or for a certain height and weight, so if [the donors] don’t fit those criteria, then they’re not a good match.
What other surprising things do potential donors do?
People will commonly give a list of their medical ailments like, “In third grade, I fell off a bike and broke my knee.” They’ll go through a description of their entire medical history. I think it’s always done in a good way. They’re trying to share what their life was like — how they worked, how they played — to tell the students a little bit about themselves.
Afterwards, what happens to donors’ bodies?
We do a memorial service once a year. It’s more of a thank-you service from the students back to the donors themselves. We usually have about a thousand people come to our service. A lot of that is medical students, dental students; we have hors d’oeuvres, coffee, water. Once you see the gratitude from the students and how they’re changing the world and helping humanity through medicine, you understand why we need to do this. People will come up to me and say, “I didn’t really understand [why] Dad wanted to donate, but now I get it.” They’re remarkable people who want to donate. You start to hear, “My dad had a garden,” and “My mom liked to paint” and “Dad could fix anybody’s lawn mower in town.” These aren’t just donors; these are people who gave us everything. It’s pretty selfless.
Interested in donating, or want to read more about the university’s Anatomical Donations Program? Visit med.umich.edu/anatomy/donors for more info.