The Differences Between Organ and Full-Body Donations

Proud organ donor - but, is that all you can give?

Proud organ donor - but, is that all you can give?

Are you planning to donate your body to science when you die? Or, are you planning to be an organ donor? While both plans are noble, there is a vast difference between full- or whole-body donations and organ donations. The difference may be enough to foil your death care plans for yourself, and it may cost your family some money in the long run. To that end, the following information may help you make more detailed plans for the disposal of your body once you die.

Organ donors can donate organs while alive (see news about kidney transplants) or upon declaration of death. Each state carries different laws about donating organs, and you will need to check out those laws in your state or if you move. In many instances, a simple notation on your driver’s license will mark you as an organ donor, and your organs – the ones that still work, of course – may be harvested and sent to someone who needs them. See United Network for Organ Sharing for more options.

Full body donation, on the other hand, may require that you have all your parts and pieces for acceptance into a donor program. For instance, BioGift – a medical research and education full body donation program,which helps you to donate your body to science – states:

“It is important to let your family know of your wishes as they will be asked for consent if the appropriate conditions occur for donation of your organs and tissues for transplant. If you reside in Oregon or Washington, you are acceptable for BioGift’s full body donation program regardless of what was recovered for transplant. If you reside outside of Oregon or Washington, we cannot accept donors who have donated for transplant with the exception of eye donation.”

Although BioGift accepts bodies from across the nation, that paragraph above means that if you reside outside Oregon or Washington, you cannot donate your organs for transplant and then expect BioGift to accept the rest of your remains.

While organ donors may make a decision to donate organs or tissues for transplant without family consultation, the full-body donor – in most cases – must discuss their plans with relatives and/or friends to finalize those plans. If an accident occurs, for instance, the trauma nurse may look at your license and call for a doctor to note time of death or to sustain life to a degree until your organs can be harvested. When you plan a full-body donation, however, the card for that service (hopefully) will be in your wallet so the trauma team can notify the next of kin and the company you signed with to donate your body. The family also will know that this full-body donation is part of your wishes and should help safeguard that wish if possible.

The organ donor, once harvested, then is handed over to the family or the funeral home to complete the burial process. The body can be buried or cremated to the deceased’s wishes or to the family’s desires. Once a person has consented to a full-body donation, however, the bodily remains are cremated and either sent to the family or not, depending upon the company’s policies. Some institutions also may retain bones for further study.

Compared to ten years ago, you now have a wide choice of companies for full- or whole-body donation services. You can choose among state-run facilities or nationwide businesses. You can choose how you want to use your body once you’ve died in some cases, or you can leave your body’s fate to the company you choose. In all cases, however, be sure to read the company’s goals, motives, services offered and any other documents before you make a decision. You don’t want to die in Arizona on a hunting trip after you’ve donated your body to an institution that ships bodies only within the state of your residence – which may not be Arizona. Such a decision would be costly to the survivors, as they would need to plan a funeral when you planned to donate your body.

If you plan to donate your body to science, be sure to understand your options completely. Then, be sure to talk about your options with your family and friends so they know what to do when you die. Understand that you may not be able to make organ donations if you want to donate your body to science. This may mean a change on your driver’s license and in other paperwork. Finally, you might make alternate plans in case your body is rejected for some reason, so your family won’t need to face making funeral plans at the last moment.

For a list of body donation programs in the United States, visit the list maintained by the University of Florida State Anatomical Board.

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