Image: Body in morgue © Janie Airey, Getty Images

A basic burial averages close to $6,600 in the United States. Many people worry about the financial burden this places on their families. There is a way around this besides opting to be cremated and carrying enough life insurance: whole-body donation.

It's estimated that at least 20,000 bodies are donated each year. I'm considering it myself. The idea of contributing to medical education and research intrigues me -- and I also like the idea that it potentially means a no-cost funeral.

That sounds like the lowest form of cheapskatery, but hear me out. I'd planned on cremation, since my personal desire is not to take up any real estate after death. I'd rather leave the space to the folks who are still alive to enjoy this world. But even a bargain-rate cremation runs about $750, and if surviving family wanted a chance to say goodbye first, it would cost more. Maybe a lot more.

My estate is fairly small, and I'd like to leave as much of it as possible to my only child, who experiences some disability. And again: I'd like to help future doctors, nurses and other medical professionals improve their skill sets.

Your religious faith may have strict rules about how a corpse should be treated. Or maybe you just can't get past the idea that you will be dissected over a period of months in anatomy class, or cut up and divided among different programs (brain to an Alzheimer's study, joints to an orthopedic surgery training).

Donna Freedman

Donna Freedman

If that bothers you, then of course you shouldn't do it. Keep in mind there won't be much bodily integrity in that 6-by-3 slot in the soil, either. Your body will decompose. Ashes to ashes and all that.

A caring and gracious act

If I were a wagering woman, I'd bet that 90% of the readers who saw the headline either shuddered or said "eeewww." Maybe both.

Riddle me this: Why is organ donation lauded while donating a body gives us the heebie-jeebies? They're both caring, gracious acts. But you probably won't see a Lifetime movie about the impact of whole-body donation, because people generally find the idea deeply creepy. It puts the "gross" in "gross anatomy."

Here's another way of thinking about it: Whole-body donation benefits all of us, every day. Any physician trained in the United States worked with cadavers. New medical instruments and new surgical methods are perfected on human tissues, joints and bones.

Altruism is the usual motive for donation, according to industry spokespeople. (Yep, it's an industry. More on that in a minute.) People designate their bodies for study to contribute to the greater good.

Not every medical school has a "willed body" program, however. The ones that don't need to get cadavers from somewhere else. Sometimes that means another medical school, but it usually involves one of the handful of nonprofit and for-profit companies that procure human tissue in this country.

How do those companies obtain bodies? By paying for transport and final disposition, that's how. Hence the idea of a free funeral.

How much is that body in the window?

Not every medical school pays for preliminary embalming and transportation of cadavers. Posthumous enrollment in gross anatomy class means getting your own ride to school. By contrast, the human-tissue procurement companies pay for all of it, from pickup to cremation.

Here's how to find out more about both options:

Maybe the idea of the body as commodity strikes you as just wrong. You're not alone. Medical ethicists are still trying to figure out the ramifications of the Uniform Anatomical Gift Act, which forbids the sale of human tissue for transplant or therapy. It does permit "reasonable payment" for services such as surgical removal, storage, transportation, etc. But it doesn't address whole bodies or the sale of body parts for anything other than transplant or therapy.

So are you breaking the law by arranging for the postmortem sale of your body? No one is quite sure. I look at it this way: If I make this choice, I won't be profiting by it. I'll be saving my daughter and any other heirs the cost of dealing with my remains.

If you opt for a nonprofit or for-profit group, be aware that each does things differently. For example, some allow for organ donation because they deal in body parts as well as whole cadavers.

You may have the chance to have your ashes mailed back to your heirs. At least one company sends a letter about the kind of research that was furthered by your body (or parts of it).

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Certain conditions preclude donation, e.g., contagious diseases such as hepatitis and AIDS. Some programs will not accept extremely obese cadavers.

Timing might make a difference, too, since some organizations specify "no embalming" -- in other words, the cadaver must be refrigerated and shipped as soon as one hour after death. If seeing you one last time is important to family members, choose a company that allows enough time for viewings.

It's important to note that you may not be able to dictate how your body will be used, as in the following circumstances:

  • A whole-body donation company may sell to private-sector researchers or companies that design new medical devices.
  • A company may use body parts in on-site physician training facilities.
  • Some send cadavers to medical schools in countries where whole-body donation goes against cultural mores.

If these examples trouble you, you might want to donate only to a medical school. This will likely cost money, although probably still less than a funeral.

Plan your approach

Should you decide to donate, research the options and make the arrangements yourself. A nebulous "please donate my body to science" request isn't fair to your loved ones. When you die they'll be shocked and grieving; don't make them look up the different programs and try to figure out what you would have wanted.

Talk to your family about it now, and don't be surprised if you encounter objections. Listen to them. It will be easier to answer such concerns if you've read the FAQ sections of med school or donation company websites. Remember: Their feelings are valid, even though ultimately it is your decision.

Unless, of course, your next of kin ignores your request and arranges a funeral. If you think this could happen, put your final wishes in writing and get them witnessed and notarized. Store the document with other "in the event of my death" paperwork, and maybe leave copies with a family member you trust to carry out your decision.

Incidentally, this can go the other way: Your next of kin can donate your body to science without your consent. If that skeeves you out, make your wishes known quite emphatically. Myself, I'd put it in writing. I'd also threaten to come back and haunt whoever did the donating.

Donna Freedman is a freelance writer in Seattle. You can find more of her writing on MSN Money's Frugal Cool blog and at Surviving and Thriving (motto: "Life is short. But it's also wide.").

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