Lifestyle

Donating your body to science and other altruistic acts

Do you want to change a life — or perhaps many lives — with a final act of generosity? Margaret McKay explains why you might want to consider donating your body to science rather than burying or burning your remains.

By Margaret McKay

Organ and body donation is a life-saving act of selfless philanthropy that can help people who need transplants, or who will rely upon the benefits of medical research.

Different organisations in Australia facilitate organ and body donations, with various legal requirements and processes you will need to know for your advanced planning.

To encourage people to consider tissue donation, the government created a one-stop information resource, called Donate Life

Let’s talk about organ donation, first

You may register to donate organs as young as 16 years of age, but you cannot consent to donate until 18.

Organ donation is the process of donating one or more organs — perhaps your heart, lungs, liver, kidneys, pancreas, eyes, or intestines  — to someone who needs a transplant to survive, or to improve their quality of life.

The donation usually occurs after death, but in some cases, it may happen while the donor is alive, for example, a kidney can be donated while the donor is living.

The organisation co-ordinating these types of donations in Australia is the Organ and Tissue Authority (OTA), a government agency that works with state and territory governments, hospitals, transplant services, and community groups. OTA ensures all the necessary legal and consent boxes are ticked to safeguard everyone involved, including the deceased.

The OTA also manages the Australian Organ Donor Register (AODR), which is the only national register where people can record their decision to become an organ or tissue donor after death.

You may register online or phone the AODR if you have any questions. Registration is mandatory and will ensure the donor’s wishes are respected, the recipient’s needs are respected, and everything is appropriately communicated to respective family or next-of-kin and medical staff. 

What about donating my body to science and research?

 Body donation is the process of donating the whole body after death to a medical school or research institution for the purposes of education, training, or research.

Body donation can help advance the knowledge and skills of medical students, doctors and scientists, and contribute to the development of new treatments and cures for various diseases and conditions.

Body donation is regulated by different laws and has different procedures in each state and territory to organ donation.

The body donor must register their intention to donate their body with a specific medical school or research institution that accepts body donations. All paperwork will be completed and signed at that organisation, including the registration procedure with the AODR.

A body donor must meet certain criteria and conditions, such as being over 18 years of age, having a sound mind at the time of consent, and perhaps not having certain medical conditions or not having had particular treatments that may affect the suitability of the body for donation.

These criteria may change from time to time, depending upon particular scientific research being undertaken by the institution.

The donor’s next-of-kin must be provided with contact details of the medical school or research institution the donor has registered with.

They must also be prepared to arrange and pay for the transportation of the body to that institution, as well as the burial services after the body is returned, which may take several years.

Some organisations will attend to cremation at no cost but there may still be a fee for the securing and transportation of ashes.

Institutions that accept body donations

New South Wales

Victoria

Queensland

Australian Capital Territory

Western Australia

South Australia

Tasmania

What to do with your donor consent

There is little point in storing your donor consent with your Will. The executor of the Will has up to 12 months after a death to read and execute a Will, whereas body or tissue donation is required immediately upon death.

The consent document should therefore be lodged with your most current health carers, with a copy provided to your next-of-kin. 

Families have the final say

Registering directly with the AODR or through a university is not enough to secure your wishes, as the final decision to donate depends on the consent of the donor’s family or next-of-kin. It is therefore wise to have a conversation with all your family and friend stakeholders, and explain why you want to do it.

A first-hand experience of donating a loved one's body to science

Mitch Gibson's late partner Mark was passionate about organ donation — though when he learned his terminal cancer diagnosis prevented him from being an organ donor they explored other meaningful alternatives and discovered the UTS body donation program. Mitch describes the experience in her own words:

"From start to finish, the donation process was respectful, meaningful, empathetic and completely professional. All questions were answered with kindness, and honoured the enormity of Mark’s donation.

"We understood that after applying to be accepted into the program, Mark's body could only be accepted after the time of death (in case anything untoward happened beforehand).

"A few hours after my darling Mark passed in a palliative care unit at a Sydney hospital, I received a call from the program co-ordinator —  who offered his sincere condolences — then said they were very happy to accept Mark’s generous donation.

"He told me Mark’s body would remain at the hospital’s morgue overnight, and the next morning they would take the body to UTS, where he would remain for up to 2 years.

"I will receive Mark's ashes when his donation is completed. There was no monetary exchange throughout the entire process."

"A few months after Mark passed, I was notified by mail that Mark’s ashes were ready to collect at UTS —  so I chose to take a close friend along with me for emotional support.

"The co-ordinator was there to greet us with sincere warmth and kindness. He showed us into a private room, where Mark’s ashes were in a standard cremation box, with his name engraved —  it was a very emotional moment for me to “have him back” with me again.

"The co-ordinator asked if I had any questions —  and after checking if I was OK hearing the assumably graphic content, answered them professionally and respectfully.

"I assumed that was the end of our dealings with the lovely team from the program … though just recently (more than 2 years after Mark passed), I unexpectedly received an invitation to attend a memorial morning tea and service in a special Memorial Garden UTS Body Donation program have, inside Rookwood Cemetery in Sydney.

"It was a really lovely morning, and time of reflection and ceremony —  and very special to hear from the people whose work benefits from the program. Their respect and gratitude was still beautifully front and centre.

"The researchers spoke about how the donors left 'a lasting and meaningful impact on my future' and explained how the science faculty students 'learn values of generosity kindness and respect'.

"The beneficiaries of Mark's donation also spoke about how body donation helps, 'science became more than words on a page' and 'all the text book words now make complete sense'.

"Along with surreal conversations and questions with other donor’s loved ones like 'did they tell you how they used the donation?', we were invited to lay flowers at the memorial site, and honour our person.

"It was a very special ceremony for a very special cause, and a much needed nod of purpose as all of us still wade through our grief, always yearning for our person.

"I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend the UTS Body Donation Program as a meaningful, respectful and very positive experience."

Citro member offer:

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You can create your Will in around 10 minutes online, and it's completely free thanks to the support of Gathered Here's charity partners. Read more about whether an online Will is right for you. Citro members can also get a free direct cremation or funeral quotes or a free quote for probate from our partner Gathered Here.

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