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How-tos and details of donating your body to science after death

Dear Savvy Senior: I am interested in possibly donating my body to science when I pass away. What can you tell me about this, and what would I need to do to set it up? — Getting Old

Dear Getting: If you’re looking to help advance medical research, and in the process, eliminate your funeral and burial costs, donating your body to science is a great option to consider. Here’s what you should know.

Body donations

Each year, it’s estimated that approximately 20,000 people donate their whole body after death to medical facilities throughout the country, to be used in medical research projects, anatomy lessons and surgical practice.

After using your body, the facilities will provide free cremation and will either bury or scatter your ashes in a local cemetery or return them to your family, usually within a year.

Just in case you’re wondering, federal and state laws prohibit payment to your family for the use of your body.

Here are a few other things you need to know and check into, to help you determine whether whole-body donation is right for you:

>> Donation refusal: Most programs will not accept bodies that are extremely obese, or those that have infectious diseases such as hepatitis, tuberculosis, HIV or MRSA. Bodies that have suffered extensive trauma will likely be declined as well.

>> Organ donation: Most medical school programs require that you donate your whole body in its entirety. If you want to be an organ donor (with the exception of your eyes), you probably won’t qualify to be a whole-body donor.

>> Religious considerations: Most major religions permit individuals to donate their full body and organs, and many even encourage it. If you are unsure, consult with your spiritual adviser.

>> Special requests: Most programs will not allow you to donate your body for a specific purpose. Your only decision to make is whether to give them your body; they decide how to use it.

>> Memorial options: Most programs require almost immediate transport of the body after death. If your loved ones want a memorial service, they must have one without your body. Some programs offer memorial services at their facility at a later date, without the remains.

>> Transporting the body: Most programs will cover transporting your body to their facility, within a certain distance. Some may charge a fee.

How to proceed

If you think you want to donate your body, it’s best to make arrangements in advance with a body donation program in your area. Most programs are offered through university-affiliated medical schools. To find one near you, the University of Florida maintains a list of U.S. programs and their contact information at Anatbd.acb.med.ufl.edu/usprograms. If you don’t have internet access, get help by calling the National Anatomical Service, a whole- body donation referral service, during business hours at 800-727-0700.

In addition to medical schools, there are also private organizations such as Science Care (ScienceCare.com) and Anatomy Gifts Registry (AnatomyGifts.org) that accept whole-body donations too. Some of these organizations will even allow organ donation because they deal in body parts as well as whole cadavers.

Once you locate a program in your area, call and ask them to mail you an information or registration packet that will explain exactly how their program works.

To sign up, you’ll need to fill out forms and return them. You can always change your mind by contacting the program and removing your name from their registration list. Some programs may ask that you make your withdrawal in writing.

After you’ve made arrangements, you’ll need to tell your family members so they will know what to do and who to call after your death. It’s also a good idea to tell your doctors, so they know your final wishes too.

Jim Miller is a contributor to NBC-TV’s “Today” program and author of “The Savvy Senior.” Send your questions to Savvy Senior, P.O. Box 5443, Norman, OK 73070; or visit savvysenior.org.

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