Donating Your Body? Prepare Your Heirs

Most people probably don’t give a whole lot of thought to what they want to happen to their body when they die. First, it isn’t something pleasant to contemplate and second, it won’t be your problem!

For those few planners with specific intents, phobias, religious beliefs or desires related to the disposal of their remains, part of the planning needs to be in preparing their loved ones to support their choices.

Why make specific plans for how your body’s disposal?

For some, it is simply a matter of cost. Funeral and burial expenses can be quite costly. If you don’t have an extra $5,000 to $10,000 in your estate to pay the expenses, you may decide to go a non-traditional route; by doing a home burial; not being embalmed and having a closed casket; opting for cremation; or possibly even deciding to donate your whole body to a nearby research university (which eliminates most of the costs).

If you abhor the idea of being buried in a hole 6 feet deep, 6 feet long and 3 feet wide, you might opt for cremation. If you want to do one last grand gesture for humankind, you might decide to donate your whole body to scientific research. Perhaps you would like a regular funeral, but want to donate body parts for transplant into living people – which will probably disfigure your body. Each of these might not match the desires of those you leave behind.

In all of these cases, and probably more, there are things you should do to improve the chances of your wishes being honored after you are gone.

A funeral ritual is a time honored tradition that allows humans to gather in honor of their departed loved one and make peace with their passing. It is a time of shared grief and glorious memories, of testimonials, remembrances and final goodbyes to your earthly remains. It demonstrates to the world that the family and friends of the deceased held them in high esteem.

When you opt for a non-traditional route, it can cause consternation in the hearts and souls of the folks you love – especially if they weren’t in on the plan. Since you won’t be there, they may just decided to go ahead and hold your funeral and burial they way they want, ignoring your wishes.

How to prepare your heirs for a non-traditional final disposition.

Write your wishes into your estate plan.

Although it probably won’t be addressed by your lawyer, you can add a letter of instruction to your plan to let folks know your desires about bodily disposal. Note that there are laws and regulations which govern how this can happen. Consider a video (and keep it up to date technically so it can be played) stating your wishes as well.

Share your estate plan with your heirs before you die!

As part of your ongoing efforts to prepare your heirs to receive any estate you leave behind and carry on your legacy to future generations, you should already be starting discussions about what you have set up for all of your stuff. As you have those discussions, also stress and share your wishes for what to do with your body. You can’t wait for ‘the reading of the will’ to let them know you want to donate body parts for someone’s transplant!

Make arrangements with third parties to carry out your plans.

If you want to donate your body, look up an institution that either handles distribution of them or receives and uses them for research. Many universities and medical schools use whole bodies. Fox News suggests finding an accredited tissue bank.

The Straight Dope gives a pretty good description of donating a body to science.

In How to Donate Your Body to Science, Donna Freedman gives some resources on how to find places that accept whole body donations.

Don’t just spew out a general request to give your body to science. Make a specific and actionable plan, and realize that there may be circumstances causing the recipient institution to have to reject your body, so also have a plan B (think about having enough insurance or assets to pay for the funeral and disposal from your estate).

Identify the parts of your plan which may cause controversy in the family.

Perhaps one member has a religious belief which will make it hard for her to accept your decision. Speak individually with that person and work through her issues with your choice.

Perhaps you think your children will be pressured by your siblings to embalm you and bury you. Speak with each separately and then as a group as to your reasons and wishes. Reassure them that it is a caring and respectful way to deal with the situation of your death.

Maybe someone feels cheated that there won’t be an open casket, or that your body won’t be present at a memorial or that there will be no remains in the cemetery for them to visit. Suggest other ways to help them feel your final presence, such as pictures or mementos at a memorial service, or a gravestone or park bench dedicated to your life.

Perhaps someone feels that your body or it’s parts will be exposed to the black market of body parts (yes there is one). Describing the steps and authenticity of the institution to receive them should help allay that fear.

Tell all your close friends and relatives what you desire to happen.

Depending on your choices, things may need to happen fast, as fast as within an hour of your death, to make the action achievable.

If you donate your body, whoever is with you and making decisions for you at your death needs to know that a) you want to donate b) where you want to donate c) how to contact that place now d) that you can’t be embalmed e) to get your body transported within the hour and f) that you might not be accepted (for instance if you are morbidly obese or die of a communicable disease, etc).

Communicate your intent to your doctor, hospital, medical group and funeral home if you have those.

If you know you are going in for a serious medical procedure, hand your doctor a letter letting her know of your wishes. If you will be using a certain funeral home, put something on file with them at the time you write it into your plan and keep them updated if it changes.

What do you think your preference will be on this subject?

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