Want to get a free cremation? Donating your body to science helps foster medical education and research while providing cremation at no cost to the family. Many medical schools and national research organizations will foot the bill for transportation, cremation and a death certificate. They will either return the cremated remains to the family or respectfully scatter the ashes.
It’s a relatively easy way to minimize the cost of cremation, but you need to plan ahead. You also need to have a Plan B, as well as a Plan C if your initial body donation plans don’t work out.
Cadavers are used for surgical education, disease research, creating and improving medical instrumentation and studying tissues and organs. Most medical schools only accept whole body donations, meaning all organs are still in the body, with the exception of corneal donations. The rest of the body must be intact for students to dissect and study.
Corneas, the clear surface at the front of the eye, help save eyesight through corneal transplants. Corneas can be harvested at the funeral home.
While the donor is still alive, when all pertinent information can easily be gathered, is the best time to pre-register with a medical school or national donation service. The donor must be a living mentally-competent adult who can sign the paperwork.
University medical programs may hold on to the cadaver and not return cremated remains for up to two years. Keep this long timeline in mind when planning any memorial service with the anticipation of having cremated remains present.
Also, recognize that the medical school may not take the body at time of death for any reason. All registered donor cards have this caveat in small print on the back. There may be no room at the morgue.
Organ donation is a separate program and procedure that helps save lives in the event of a tragic accident. The organ donation choice is usually indicated on a driver license. However, organ donors do not automatically get a free cremation.
Free cremation is offered to those who register to donate the entire body to science, not simply agree to allow the harvesting of life-saving organs at time of death.
Who Is Eligible?
Most people are eligible for body donation, regardless of age or medical conditions at death. However, there are exceptions. If the person has or had a communicable disease such as hepatitis, HIV/AIDS and/or tuberculosis, severe obesity or edema (fluid swelling) or the body has experienced decomposition or trauma, that body will not be eligible.
Sign up with a national anatomical donation service to serve as a Plan B, in case a medical school is unable to accept the body at time of death. Some services can accept a body after death without pre-registering, but some won’t. It pays to do your research.
To make sure you’re dealing with a reputable organization, look for a seal of accreditation by the American Association of Tissue Banks (www.AATB.org).
These national organizations work with local funeral homes to facilitate transfer of the body to their facilities. They all provide free pick up of the body, cremation and a death certificate. Most of these services promise the return of cremated remains within three to 12 weeks.
AATB has currently granted accreditation to these national whole body donation programs. Click on the name to go to each website.
Anatomy Gifts Registry: Based in Hanover, MD
Medcure: Based in Portland, OR
Medical Education and Research Institute – MERI: Based in Memphis, TN
Science Care: Based in Phoenix, AZ
Southwest Institute for Bio-Advancement (SWIBA): Based in Tucson, AZ
United Tissue Network: Based in Phoenix, AZ
And have a Plan C for direct cremation, the lowest cost option, in the event the body is not accepted for whatever reason. It pays to do your homework in advance of a death in the family. Cremation costs can vary widely. A good place to start is the funeral home price list website Parting.com, which offers a zip code-searchable database.
You can find more information on cremation options in Hail and Farewell: Cremation Ceremonies, Templates and Tips, by Gail Rubin and Susan Fraser. Learn more here.
The book’s title refers to the last line of an ancient elegiac poem written by the Roman poet Gaius Valerius Catullus approximately 2,000 years ago. He mourns the death of his brother, who died while Catullus was traveling abroad. Upon his return, he sadly addresses his brother’s cremated remains, “… with brotherly weeping. And forever, brother, hail and farewell.”