What happens to a body donated to science?

It is common for individuals and relatives of the deceased to donate dead bodies to science, believing they are contributing to good causes, such as disease research and potential organ donations. Most often there are no questions asked once the donations have been made. However, what should be known, and most often is not publicised, is the fact that donating a body to science is likely to contribute to commercial activities of the company the corpse had been donated to, more than to the interests of actual true science.

The reality is that the body-donation industry has loose regulations, and profits often matter more than ensuring the cadavers are actually used for legitimate research. A case has been recently reported of an amateur who purchased human heads from body-donation companies, for several thousand dollars each. He stored the heads in a refrigerator for the purpose of conducting self-taught experiments on them, even though the organisations claimed to only be selling parts for legitimate research purposes.

Another concerning case had been reported in the US when a family decided to make tissue donations of a deceased man in his 50's.  Before the funeral, the family noticed that the body lying in the coffin was bleeding from his hands. The funeral director sent a complaint to the donor network, which had stripped off the useful tissue samples, also adding that the feet had been severed from the corpse and the skin was torn up in several locations. This was in spite of the donor network being legally required to fulfill their duty of reassembling bodies following tissue removal.

In other documented cases, the for-profit body donation industry had been using freely-donated corpses to earn significant profits by selling parts overseas for cosmetic procedures including nose jobs, filling wrinkles and cosmetic surgery of genitals. The records of such organisations have been found to be poorly-kept, making it impossible to track a donor to a buyer. Thus, families of the deceased are not fully informed of what happens to the bodies of their loved ones, and lack the ability to make choices in the following organ sale process.

The key issue in this case is the fact that vulnerability of grieving families is being exploited for commercial profits, as the families are often ignorant of the full details of corpse donation while having to cope with the loss of their loved ones. In most cases the families are denied the knowledge that they have the right to change their mind shortly after agreeing to the donation process. Moreover, society in general contributes to the commercialisation of the funeral and body donation industries as death is still a very taboo topic and in most cases families do not wish to have anything to do with dead bodies due to the socially-enhanced repulsion towards death. More about that will be written in one of my future posts regarding the taboo surrounding death-related topics.

In conclusion, even though in many cases donated corpses end up in legitimate hands and are used for purposes benefitting mankind, including research of disease treatments, enhancing scientigic knowledge of human anatomy, and allowing organ transplants, the body donation industry is still very much commercialised. Thus, it is important for families to be aware of the details regarding the customers who receive the body parts of their loved ones and the purposes for which they intend to use them. It is essential that the ignorance surrounding corpse donations gets irradicated, instead allowing living relatives to have more say when facing decisions regarding corpses of their family members.


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