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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