A Grave Decision

As a young teenager, I remember being horrified to learn that my parents had decided to donate their bodies to medical science after death. A light-hearted family discussion took place at the time and then the subject was never mentioned again. Donating your body for the advancement of medical knowledge is a wonderful gesture but it’s a huge decision to make and consideration is required for those who will be left behind to carry out the request.

Bodies donated to medical science are used in universities to help to train the next generation of doctors. Not every person who registers for a donation can be sure that he or she will be accepted in the end. There are a number of factors which preclude the university from accepting certain bodies, including contagious diseases, extreme emaciation or obesity, or whether or not a post-mortem has been carried out on the body. Organ donors whose organs are used for transplant are also excluded. Those who do decide to register with any of the universities, receive an information pack detailing how things will operate in the event of their death, and a donation form to be signed by the donor and his/her next of kin. The procedure varies little between the institutions involved, usually requiring the remains to be picked up within a short space of time after the donor’s death and taken to the academic institution of choice. Bodies can then be kept there for up to three years. During this time, they are used primarily to help undergraduate healthcare students to learn the systems and physicality of the human body.Β  Many postgraduates also use the subjects donated for further study in a number of areas, including ear, nose and throat surgery and endoscopic surgery.Β  From time to time, the dissecting room is also used by surgeons who want to try out a new incision or a new technique before embarking on surgery on a living human.

Once an institution wants to release the person’s remains, their family is contacted and arrangements made to transport the body of the deceased to the final resting place. This can be one of the private plots in Glasnevin cemetery maintained by the universities for burial, with the cost of this burial or cremation covered by the relevant institution.Β  If the family wishes to bury their loved one at an alternative location, the university will cover the costs of transport, providing it is within a specified radius of the institution, while the opening of the grave and other expenses involved are borne by the deceased’s estate. Despite the possible financial advantages to such an outcome, the universities involved are at pains to stress that the financial considerations are not usually what compel those on their books to donate their bodies. Ireland is not experiencing any difficulty in finding donors. Indeed, such has been the response from the public here that one college has temporarily halted registering new donors.

People who register to donate their bodies can change their minds. Relatives of prospective donors can also decide against going through with the process once the donor has passed away, given that the registration form is not considered a legally binding document. As it turned out, my parents subsequently withdrew their registration to “advance medical science” having given further thought to the full implications of their decision. I was more than grateful for this change of heart when some years later, I found myself working in the dissection room as part of my physiotherapy training and now that my undergraduate daughter is also doing time there, I’ve every reason to be thankful that my parents (now in their 80’s) took great care in making this important decision.

The information supplied in this post was found at the Irish Times online.

11 Responses to A Grave Decision

  1. Grannymar says:


    You throw a whole new light on this subject. Like your parents I often talked about donating my body after death. It never entered my head that a possible child of mine might end up in the dissecting room having to work on me! Mind you I am sure there were times when Elly wished she could! πŸ˜‰

  2. Steph says:

    Thank you, Grannymar.

    I hope you don’t have nightmares tonight thinking about Elly happily dissecting you! πŸ˜‰

    I’ve always been grateful that my parents revised their decision having given it more careful consideration. I still however, much admire people who are happy to donate their bodies to medical science as the future of medicine greatly depends on their generosity.

  3. Baino says:

    I wouldn’t mind but I think I’m too fat! My Godfather wanted to but they rejected him poor man. My Niece is an Audiologist and many of Clare’s friends did Physiotherapy so I’m no stranger to the ‘dissecting room’ antics. If it helps create good medico’s I’m all for it, I’d hate to think that I might be the first ‘real’ body that a young doctor has decided to operate upon! I’ve stuck with organ donation . . . mainly because I think my family would prefer some closure.

  4. Baino says:

    Oh, I meant to mention that here bodies are shipped to hospitals and universities distant from where the person died to avoid accidentally having a family member dissecting great uncle George!

  5. Steph says:

    Hi! Baino

    My young wan was thrown straight into the dissecting room in her first week in college and came home feeling quite emotionally fragile from the experience. For someone who hasn’t had any experience of seeing a dead body, it was a big leap to take.

    I’ve heard some awful stories of antics in the dissecting room but my experience was always one of great respect shown to the donor bodies and from what I’ve heard over the past few weeks, that tradition of respect continues.

    The Aussie tradition of shipping bodies to distant locations to avoid accidental recognition, is a clever one but wouldn’t work here ‘cos in our lickle country everyone knows everyone! I know that when my parents applied to donate their bodies, they were allowed to choose the training college they wished to donate to but that practice may have changed in the meantime as it was over 35 years ago!

  6. Grannymar says:


    I have no worries about anyone cutting me up in little bits. I was thinking of it from the other angle – the cutter pulling back the sheet and saying “Oh NO! That is my Granny!”

  7. Steph says:

    I know, Grannymar. I was only joking!

    Your angle is exactly the reason why my parents changed their minds. Several couples they knew had sons and daughters who went to the same college where my parents were registered for body donation and that’s what made them realise that the situation you describe, could easily have arisen. It makes you wonder if this awful possibility has actually occurred?

  8. Bendy Girl says:

    What a fascinating insight Steph thank you. I’ve heard of a few people with EDS over the years who intend to try and donate their bodies specifically for research into EDS but I don’t know if that’s possible.
    Are you a physio? If so I’m quite sure the return to work you’ve previously discussed would be welcomed by a great many people πŸ˜‰
    BG x

  9. Steph says:

    Thank-you! BG

    You do say such nice things to me! πŸ˜€

    Unfortunately, I never got to complete my Physio course (I successfully completed 2/3 of it) as I was not allowed to work on the wards because of the increasing problems with my joints. My EDS had not been diagnosed at that stage and so I was simply advised to take time out. I hated not being able to do what I wanted and so instead chose to leave the course to work in medical research. It’s decision I’ve always regretted as I would have been far better to persevere against the odds, just to get that qualification under my belt. As it turned out, I feel I’ve had a fairly thorough medical education (on the receiving end) but I’ve nothing but scars to show for it πŸ˜‰

    My hubby has been known to joke me that nobody would want my body for medical research as my anatomy has been so medically ‘altered’ by surgery, it might confuse the students!

    I guess you know that story well.

  10. Bendy Girl says:

    I’m sorry to hear you had to give up your training, hindsight is always a wonderful thing, but perhaps it’s actually better you did as who knows what might’ve been the impact on your joints?
    I don’t think I’m as medically altered as you…I’ve only had joint surgery really. I did wonder when I was reading your post the first time whether it is still possible to tell someone has EDS after death, I don’t know about you but I’m so lax internally that bowel, bladder etc all move around a great deal, and depending on my weight can be seen to do so through my abdomen. It’s also possible to feel my spine through my stomach. I’m not sure any of that would be possible to replicate in a cadaver.
    Oh how cheerful for a sunny (but cold) monday morning! Have a good week Steph, BG x x

  11. Steph says:

    Hi! again, Bendy

    While you were leaving a comment here, I was busy leaving a comment over at your place πŸ˜€

    I was told while in training that I was an insurance risk and therefore I was not allowed to work on the wards. My joints would collapse without warning and I would tumble to the ground and this was considered high risk for working with patients. This tendency to fall seems to have lessened over the years (luckily for me) although the falls feel much harder now!

    The medical alteration I refer to is in reference to the tendency of EDS’ers to form abnormal scar tissue following surgery. I’ve had a lot of surgery over the years and have been told that the resultant scar tissue makes further surgery more difficult. I deduced from this that dissection would also be more difficult.

    And yes, the laxity you refer to causes me all sorts of internal problems too but I don’t think I want to discuss those problems here! πŸ˜€

    I was told when I was diagnosed that my lax connective tissue would improve with age but I’ve not seen any evidence of this so far. If anything, the opposite is true. As you say, you’d wonder if this laxity can be seen in a cadaver or if, when our time comes, we just ‘go stiff’ like everyone else? πŸ˜€

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