Fifteen years ago, I wrote to the University at Buffalo for paperwork on donating my body to science. Perhaps my timing was off, because I misplaced it. Eventually, arthritis set in and, knowing that “the knee bone’s connected to the thigh bone,” my spine got into the act. Arising daily to a symphony of pain, I wondered, what’s life if you can’t live it? New guidelines arrived, but what I’d remembered as “cadaver donation” had gone new millennium and was now the Anatomical Gift Program. A friend noted, as she signed up, “I’ve always wanted to go back to college.”
New knees and vertebrae replacement sounded too good to be true, but with tests, cutting and pasting, and grinding away at a stationary bike, life took a wonderful, upbeat turn. I continued to trust medical science, so as things wore out, I did what I had to do. My titanium spine rods, screws and faithful knee implants kept me on the straight and narrow. With surgery, my vision returned to almost 20/20. I got dams in my tear ducts, numerous tympanostomy tubes and carry the history of dentistry in my Rolls-Royce of a mouth. Who would think of tossing these life-restoring components into a landfill? Vitality may cease, but why not let my road map of a body continue to speak after I’m gone?
Michelangelo’s figurative sculptures and paintings touch us profoundly because he defied church orders by dissecting corpses to learn the body’s structure and inner workings. Technology can provide us with three-dimensional, full-color replicas of practically anything we can think of, but there’s no substitute for the real thing. How will students learn to make new and improved versions of that internal machinery without hands-on experience?
Death is a driving theme for literature, drama and opera. On prime-time TV, a partially eviscerated corpse on a slab often holds the starring role. An unprecedented number of kids hope to study forensic science, and jobs in medicine will remain secure because we’re not getting any younger. Would wearing a toe tag inside a refrigerated drawer give new meaning to the song, “She’s come undone?” What, then, does becoming an anatomical gift involve?
Expediency is of the utmost importance, as well as easy access to the intact body. Within a 100-mile range, the Medical School will pick up the remains gratis. It can take from one to two years for the study of the body to be completed and it will then be cremated. No charge is made to the family, nor will any payment be made for use of the body. The Medical School will not provide reports as to findings.
Donations by people over the age of 18 are welcome and parents may donate a minor’s body. Once the papers have been submitted, a person may make a written request to withdraw them.
The most important thing is that the next of kin needs to be in agreement, so working out details in advance is imperative. I’ve been to too many funerals where the deceased’s wishes were not granted and that seems such a travesty to me. Having “the discussion” is never easy, but it’s worth the effort
I shared my ideas with my niece: “The university has burial sites for the cremated remains at Mount Olivet Cemetery and at a place called the Little White Church on the grounds of the North Campus. Every few years, they hold a memorial service to honor the donors. And, the best part, it’s absolutely free.” She didn’t miss a beat. “Auntie, don’t you think after death it’s time to give up bargain shopping?”