Here's What Actually Happens When You Donate Your Body to Science

Answers to all the questions you've always wanted to ask


Published:

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.

Edit Module
Edit Module Edit ModuleShow Tags

Archive »Related Content

Stressed Out? Try Goat Yoga

Highland Park’s Pingree Farms offers a quirky fitness class

The Art of Yoga

A local instructor on Crohn’s disease and her path to healing

An Hour With ... Carmen McIntyre

Chief Medical Officer, Michigan Department of Corrections

Health Extra: How to Combat Seasonal Allergies

A local allergist and a community herbalist offer their tips for weathering allergy season

Health Extra: Don’t Panic When Vertigo Suddenly Hits

The most common cause of dizziness is not as scary as you think
Edit Module
Edit ModuleShow Tags

Most Popular

  1. 7 Michigan Breweries Worth a Trip
    Check out these must-visit locations during your summer travels
  2. To Market, to Market
    Michigan Wine & Cider Festival at Eastern Market May 24
  3. Your Guide to Michigan’s Odd and Unusual Festivals
    We rounded up some of the state’s most niche events, celebrating everything from fishflies to...
  4. Hour Media’s Real Estate All-Star Party 2017
    Hour Media's Real Estate All-Stars celebrated at the fourth annual Real Estate All-Star Party...
  5. Meet the Southwest Detroit Pizzeria Serving Sospeso
    PizzaPlex in southwest Detroit is challenging what it means to be a new business on the block
  6. Dry Times: Looking Back 100 Years After Prohibition
    A century ago, Detroit became the first city in the nation to prohibit alcohol
  7. An Hour With... Candice S. Miller
    Macomb County Public Works Commissioner
  8. The Gentleman’s Guide to Style
    From grooming to shopping, a comprehensive directory for stylish men in metro Detroit
  9. ‘Grazie Mille’ For the Memories
    Adventures abound in Italy with Michigan winemaker, grape growers
  10. Motherhood in Metro Detroit
    From pre-pregnancy thoughts to developing unconditional love, several local women give a glimpse...