Featured FAQ: What Do I Need to Know About Body Donation or Anatomical Gifts?

January 15, 2017

An anatomical gift, which is sometimes referred to colloquially as a body donation, is a generous contribution that can save lives and train the next generation of medical professionals. One’s gift may go toward aiding medical research in finding a cure for diseases such as cancer, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, heart disease, and diabetes but more commonly in this area, the gift is a teaching tool for medical students to learn about human anatomy and surgeons to develop and improve surgical techniques.

44764334 - medical students walking through corridor at the university“We are fortunate to live in an area with premier academic medical centers and medical schools like Boston University, Harvard University, Tufts University and the University of Massachusetts. Each of these schools trains and provides continuing education to some of the top providers in the world and a significant part of this education is achieved through robust anatomical gift programs,” said Joe Reardon, Vice President for Community Development and Advance Planning.

How Do I Make a Gift?

An anatomical gift is generally pre-arranged by the donor prior to death but some programs accept donations without prior registration. According the Tufts University School of Medicine Anatomical Gift Program website, “Any individual over the age of 18 is eligible to donate their body.”

“When an individual or family chooses to participate in an anatomical gift program, our funeral directors work with them to ensure that the deceased is transferred properly and efficiently into the care of the medical school. At the same time, we are also working with the family to help meet their needs for ritual and memorialization,” said Reardon.

The first step is to contact the school to which you wish to make your gift. Donors often complete a short medical screening by phone and complete a registration form. Once completed, the legal authorization remains on file until the time of death.

When the death occurs, the deceased’s family contacts the medical school to begin the process of transferring the person to the care of the medical school. Once there, the person is prepared for use to train medical students and providers. At the conclusion of the academic cycle, the person may be released to the care of a funeral home at the family’s expense or be cremated at the medical school’s expense. If cremation is chosen, the person who has been cremated may be released to their family, to a funeral home or in some cases, may be buried in Pine Hill Cemetery in Tewksbury at the expense of the medical school. The entire process usually last from approximately on year but may sometimes be longer.

Can I Still Have a Funeral?

Absolutely! However, ceremonies at the time of death cannot be conducted with the deceased present.

“The rites and ceremonies planned for the family of a person who has chosen an anatomical gift are slightly different from most funerals in that the deceased is not able to be present for the ceremonies. However, there are many other options such as memorial visitation or a memorial service. Also, families will have the opportunity to plan final disposition following cremation which will allow another opportunity to say goodbye,” said Reardon.

In addition to ceremonies planned in the donor’s home community, the medical schools also hold regularly scheduled community memorial services to honor the donors. The medical school community, students and the donors’ families are invited to participate in this ceremony as another way to memorialize the donors and reflect on the value of their gifts.

Can My Donation be Declined?

Anatomical gifts may be declined for several reasons including communicable diseases, emaciation, obesity or sometimes simply that the program cannot accommodate a donation based on its current needs. For this reason, it is highly recommended that donors and families have another plan.

“Often times, when a family is choosing an anatomical gift, we are able to immediately transfer the deceased to the chosen medical school and help the family plan the ceremonies that will help them through their loss.  However, there are situations where a school is unable to accept the deceased into the program so it is important to have an alternate plan,” said Reardon.

Your funeral director can help you establish plans for both outcomes. “On one occasion, one of our funeral directors made advance planning arrangements with a woman who had registered with an anatomical gift program. The funeral director suggested that two plans be established: one for an anatomical gift and one where we cared for her disposition. In the end, they were two vastly different plans – memorial visitation and memorial service vs. open casket visitation and a funeral service – yet they both concluded with cremation and burial with her parents. In the end, her gift was accepted by the medical school, but her family was very glad that there was fallback plan,” said Reardon.

What Does It Cost?

Anatomical gift programs bear the costs of the transfer and care of the deceased. In addition, they will also arrange for cremation at the end of the academic cycle. However, except for the school’s memorial service, the cost any funeral or memorial ceremonies, newspaper notifications or private burials are borne by the family.

Where Can I Donate?

In Massachusetts, there are several outstanding medical schools that will gladly accept your anatomical gift for the benefit of their medical students:

Anatomical gifts are a wonderful way to contribute to the future of healthcare and the Keohane team is acutely aware of how invaluable they are. Your gift could help a medical student learn about the wonders of the human body, it could help train a provider in a new procedure or it could even help train embalmers including several Keohane team members whose school benefitted from a partnership with Harvard Medical School. The entire team knows how important it is to honor this gift by caring for the donor and the family compassionately and efficiently.

“We are very fortunate to have a team of funeral directors who are very creative and can help families plan truly personal and meaningful ceremonies that will help families through their loss. They are very well prepared to assist families who have opted for an anatomical gift to create the rituals that will meet their needs,” said Reardon.

If you have further questions or would like to talk to one of our knowledgeable funeral directors about whole body donation, please contact us at any of our locations or call our main office at 1-800-Keohane (800-536-4263).

Photo credit: Wavebreak Media Ltd /


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