Donating your body to medical science is a unique gift that will help with the advancement of medicine and science in Australia and will benefit generations to come.
Depending on the program, the donated body – medically known as a cadaver – can either be used for medical research or training. Through institutions like universities and other research organisations, body donation programs help to train the next generation of doctors, nurses, medical scientists and other health professionals.
Deciding whether to become a body donor is something that requires significant consideration to ensure you understand the emotional impact on yourself and your family.
This complete guide to donating your body to science explains everything you need to know about donating your body to medical science, including:
- How many bodies are donated to science each year?
- Reasons to donate your body to science
- Who can donate their body to science?
- What happens when you donate your body to medical science?
- Are there costs involved with donating your body to science?
- How to donate your body to science in Australia
- Can I change my mind about body donation?
- Can I be an organ donor and donate my body to science?
- Donating your brain to dementia research
- Final thoughts on body donation
1. How many bodies are donated to science each year?
Australia-wide, less than 2,000 people will donate their bodies to science each year, according to Gatherdhere.com.au.
2. Reasons to donate your body to science
Many people regard donating their body to science as a way to contribute to society once they have died, through assisting with medical research and training.
Body donation can help train doctors, surgeons, medical scientists and other health-related professionals, and provide medical students with the best possible education and training. It can also facilitate medical and scientific research, with the potential to contribute to important health discoveries that can alleviate suffering and improve community wellbeing.
Though research is the primary motivator for most, it also has the benefit of eliminating funeral costs for the family after death as the university will normally pay for a simple burial or cremation once it has finished studying the body.
3. Who can donate their body to science?
Each program will have specific aims and requirements for donation, so your first step is to read about the program and check that you are eligible. Donors generally must be at least 18 years of age but there is not usually an upper age limit.
However, there are certain circumstances and medical conditions which preclude some universities from accepting a human body for donation. A number of conditions may automatically exclude you from a program, including:
- Infectious diseases or medical conditions such as AIDS, hepatitis, Ebola, yellow fever, tuberculosis, etc;
- Other conditions which may be identified as a health or safety risk to staff and students;
- Conditions that are poorly understood including Alzheimer’s or dementia (however you can donate to a brain bank for research separately to body donation programs. See section 9 below)
- Being clinically obese or emaciated;
- Residing in the UK between 1980 and 1996 for six months or more, or having received a blood transfusion in the UK since 1 January 1980.
Even if your registration is accepted, the university or institution cannot guarantee it will accept your body at the time of death, as circumstances can change significantly. Conditions may arise which could prevent acceptance of the body donation, including:
- Recent unhealed surgical wounds, or disease such as gangrene;
- If the donor’s family objects to the donation at the time of death;
- More than 24 hours between the time of death and notifying the university;
- More than 48 hours between the time of death and delivery of the body to the university facilities;
- A Coroner’s inquiry or an autopsy;
- Insufficient space within the anatomy facility;
- Organ removal for transplant surgery;
- University facilities at capacity;
- Death in a location outside the institution’s catchment area;
- Death during Christmas and New Year closure;
- Other unforeseen circumstances, for example the coronavirus pandemic.
4. What happens when you donate your body to medical science?
Assuming you have made the necessary arrangements to donate your body to science, your executor or Next of Kin will need to notify the university or its contracted funeral director as soon as possible after death. Depending on the place of death, the university will arrange to collect the body.
Once the body has been delivered to the university it will be tested for a range of diseases, including hepatitis, HIV, mad cow disease and tuberculosis. If the tests turn a positive reading on any disqualifying diseases, the body will be rejected and returned to the family. If it is accepted, there is normally no further contact with relatives.
The body will then be embalmed, which is a process that replaces blood with a chemical fluid that helps to preserve and disinfect the body, ready for storage.
The use of the body will then depend on the needs of the university, but the most common use of a cadaver is by students learning about human anatomy. Sometimes particular tissues may also be preserved for later study or research. Your remains will be treated with dignity, respect and anonymity through its use in medical and scientific research or training.
Following your death, the family may like to hold a memorial service. While your body will not be there, a memorial allows family and friends the opportunity to gather and celebrate your life. You can read our article on alternatives to a traditional funeral service for some ideas on planning a memorial.
The university may retain your body for up to eight years, at which time your body will be cremated or buried according to your wishes. If your cremated remains are being returned to the family following the research period, they might like to consider an ashes scattering ceremony, For tips on scatterings, visit the Bare Cremation blog.
5. Are there costs involved with donating your body to science?
The use of your body for science or medical research is a donation. The university will generally meet all relevant expenses associated with your body donation and will also be responsible for a simple burial or cremation (as indicated by your preference on the consent forms). Institutions do not cover the cost of funeral or memorial services, urns or the collection of ashes from the cemetery. They may pass on some fees to the family or estate for items like a death certificate and cremation certificate.
The institution will usually have its own burial grounds, which are not generally available for public visitation. If cremation is selected, the ashes will be scattered in the grounds of the crematorium unless you have specified that the cremated remains should be returned to your Next of Kin or family member.
The university will not accept costs for death notices in newspapers or costs of private memorialisation – including plaques in cemetery or crematorium gardens. If you request an alternative crematorium or cemetery, the costs will need to be met by your family or estate, including transportation to a funeral home.
However, if your donation is not acceptable for any reason, no financial obligation can be accepted by the university. Your family will be responsible for transportation costs associated with the return of the body as well as the associated costs of any funeral arrangements.
6. How to donate your body to science in Australia
In Australia, there is no single register for body donation, as is the case for organ donation. There are a number of universities and research organisations across Australia that you can donate your body or certain tissues to. You will need to contact the institution directly to apply.
Below is a list of universities across Australia, with links to their body donation programs:
Body donation New South Wales
- University of NSW: 02 9385 2480
- University of Sydney: 02 9351 9457
- University of Wollongong: 02 4221 3800
- University of New England Armidale: 02 6773 3087
- Macquarie University: 02 9812 3543
- University of Technology Sydney: 02 9514 9703
Body donation Victoria
University of Melbourne: 03 8344 5809
Body donation Queensland
Body donation ACT
Australian National University: 02 6125 2198
Body donation Western Australia
University of Western Australia: 08 6488 3288
Body donation South Australia
University of Adelaide: 08 8303 5998
Body donation Tasmania
University of Tasmania: 1800 792 661
The university can only accept your body if you have previously completed and signed the donor offer forms. It is not possible for your family to donate your body on your behalf. The exact process you will need to follow to donate your body to science will differ depending on the university or organisation, but generally the process will be as follows:
- If you are eligible to become a donor you will need to contact the donor program co-ordinator.
- You and your family (or the executor of your will) will need to fill in donor consent forms and return them.
- Once the university has received the correctly completed donor offer forms and they satisfy the acceptance requirements you will be sent a confirmation and a donor card.
- Your details will be held in a confidential file at the university.
Donating your body to science is not only a personal decision; it is one that will affect your whole family. It’s important to involve your close family and discuss with them your intentions to donate your body. This matter can be very distressing for them if they only find out about your body donation when you die. If your family is aware of your bequest before death, they will have more time to prepare and will be more likely to honour your wish. It’s also a good idea to inform your doctor, nursing home administrator and any other relevant people or caregivers of your bequest to donate your body to science.
7. Can I change my mind about body donation?
You may withdraw your bequest at any time by notifying the university in writing. Ultimately, your Next of Kin can object to your body being donated and will have the final say after you pass away.
8. Can I be an organ donor and donate my body to science?
Body donation is different from organ donation. When donating your body to science the whole body is used, however only a single part of the body is required for organ donation.
Organ donors can usually register for a body donation program as well, but if organs have been removed, the body will be rejected for donation to science. If you are already registered as an organ donor you can remain registered as your donation may save another person’s life. Participation in a body donor program does not require you to withdraw from registering with the Australian Organ Donor Register. Whilst you may be registered in both programs, there is no guarantee that you would be required by either program when the time comes.
You can register for organ donation through the Australian Organ Donor Register or through your existing myGov account. To find out more or become a registered brain tissue donor, contact your nearest Australian Brain Bank below.
9. Donating your brain to dementia research
People with dementia are not be able to donate their bodies to science, however they can donate their brains for medical research into the disease. Progress can be made towards finding the cause of Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias if researchers can compare these with normal brains as well – so all types of brains are needed.
To find out more or become a registered brain tissue donor, contact your
nearest Australian Brain Bank listed below:
- Sydney Brain Bank: call 02 9399 1707 or email email@example.com
- NSW Brain Tissue Resource Centre: call 02 9351 6143 or email firstname.lastname@example.org
South Australia and NT brain donation bank
Flinders University: call 08 8204 4393 or email SABB@flinders.edu.au
The Florey Institute of Neuroscience and Mental Health: call 03 8344 1900 or email email@example.com
Western Australia brain donation bank
WA Health: call 08 9224 2925 or email: firstname.lastname@example.org
More information on brain donation is also available at Dementia Australia or calling the National Dementia Helpline on 1800 100 500.
10. Final thoughts on body donation
Donating your body to science can be an invaluable contribution in supporting the next generation of doctors, nurses and medical staff. It can also help to advance science and medicine through research, in a way that cannot be done in the absence of body donation.
We hope you find this guide on how to donate your body to science helpful. As mentioned earlier, it is really important to let your family know of your wishes if you decide to become a body donor.
If you have any further questions or to get a quote for a cremation visit the Bare Cremation website or call 1800 841 639.