Donating your body to science

First National Bank (FNB) recently stated that it is becoming too expensive for people to bury their loved ones. Moneybags journalist Jessica Anne Wood looks at the alternative of donating your body to science to avoid funeral and burial costs.

Caroline Powrie, a technical officer in the Department of Human Biology at the University of Cape Town (UCT) notes: “People donate to us for a variety of reasons, some because they want to give back to society, others for personal moral or financial reasons. We also get families who are struggling financially who choose to donate their loved one to the medical school as we cover all expenses including transportation and cremation. We cannot accept the bodies of organ donors as we need the whole body for embalming and dissection.

“There have been occasions where professionals in the medical field have donated their bodies often explaining they want to be useful after death to their profession.”

But what are the requirements for donating your body, and how do you go about?

Donating your body

According to the Anatomical Society of Southern Africa (ASSA) website, there are five universities in South Africa that accept body donations. These are:

  • The University of the Witwatersrand (Wits)
  • The University of Cape Town
  • The University of the Free State
  • The University of Pretoria
  • The University of Stellenbosch

In order to donate your body to any of the above institutions, you need to contact the representative for the department that handles these donations at the university. These contact details can be found here (

If you show interest in donating your body you are provided with an information document and required to complete and submit a form with your information, and it is advised that you discuss your decision with family members.

“It is important that all donors make sure that their families are aware of their plans and agree to the bequest. Once the bequest has been received by the Department we are not under any legal obligation to return it,” highlights the UCT information document.

What are donated bodies used for?

The donated bodies are used for teaching and research by medical and science students and medical specialists.

Wits notes that teaching involves dissection of the body, and possible creation of plastinated and wet specimens to highlight specific anatomical areas of interest. With current technological advances the students might be provided with images (including, but not limited to, radiological, photographic and CT scanning) of specific anatomical regions. Dissection videos may also be created. In addition, certain body elements might be useful for the generation of casts and models (e.g. rubberized latex structure of the blood supply, 3D printing of internal organs and bone casts).

The universities make assurances that donated bodies are treated with the utmost respect within the School and the anonymity of the individual donor will not be compromised in any format or for any reason. Any research that will be conducted on the donated body has to be evaluated and approved by the Collections Committee of the School of Anatomical Sciences to ensure that the use of the remains are not compromised in any legal or ethical regard. None of the material generated from the donor’s remains will be used in any manner for monetary gain.

Who pays the costs?

In most instances, when a body is donated to an institution, that institution pays for the transportation of the body. However, there are proximity exclusions.

Powrie notes that at UCT they generally cover the transport cost of bodies that are within a 100km radius of the university. However, if you reside beyond that distance, the university may, in agreement with the family, cover a portion of the transport cost to get the cadaver to its premises.

Wits states: “The University, at its own expense, will be responsible for the transport of the body to the Medical School. However, with the ever increasing costs of transportation, the University is unable to accept a body donation from a person residing more than ±300 kilometres from the Medical School unless the family is prepared to meet the costs of such transportation beyond the 300 km specification. We are also unable to accept body donations from outside South Africa.”

A spokesperson for the University of Pretoria reveals: “If the body must be transported from further than a 100 km radius from the university we sometimes ask the family to assist with the transport costs. From the moment we receive the body we then take responsibility of all costs until after the final cremation, usually two to three years later. Following cremation, if the family has made such request, the ashes are made available to the next of kin. The cost then to the family is the cost of collection.”

Once dissection has been completed, the remains are cremated at the expense of the university. However, what is done with these remains differ according to the institution.

“Depending on the wishes of the donor, the remains will either be retained within the School for an indefinite period of time or for a finite period. In the event that the donor opts for finite period, certain deadlines are applicable after which the School will dispose of the remains. The School will only retain the ashes of the donor for a maximum of five years and will dispose of the ashes thereafter. It is the responsibility of the selected family member, friend or colleague of the donor to ensure that they collect the ashes from the School within this five year period. It is also the responsibility of this individual to ensure that they make the School aware of any change of contact details prior to or within this five year period,” explains Wits.

UCT, by comparison, hosts an annual non- denominational dedication service at the end of the year where the staff and students honour the donors and express their gratitude to them. The remains are cremated after about 18 months and are scattered in the Garden of Remembrance. Families may request the ashes of the donor and these are retained by the University for a reasonable period after cremation. “Sometimes the Department will retain some body parts for plastination or long term study and research. Following the completion of study, the remains are cremated.”

What bodies are excluded?

A spokesperson for the University of Pretoria states: “According to the law we are only allowed to make use of natural death donors, and because of the nature of teaching human anatomy, the pre-requisites of all universities are more or less the same. We need to be able to preserve the body for a minimum of two years. Any condition preventing us from embalming the body will disqualify the donation. We use the arterial system to embalm the body and if this system is compromised we unfortunately cannot use the body.”

Powrie notes that there are not necessarily medical conditions which will exclude a person from donating their body for use by UCT students. However, some of the exclusions that UCT does have include:

  • The donor having a body size that exceeds our storage capabilities (e.g. not exceeding a weight of 90-100kgs).
  • Having undergone extensive surgery close to the time of death.
  • Having undergone a post mortem examination.
  • If any organs (other than cornea) have been donated at time of death for transplant purposes.
  • If the cause of death has been the result of major trauma.
  • Certain notifiable diseases

Wits also have certain exclusions, including:

  • Should a donor die from a notifiable disease, such as Rabies, all Viral Haemorrhagic Fevers, Meningococcal Infections, Infective Hepatitis, Plague, Smallpox, Rickettsiosis and Disseminated Tuberculosis.
  • Other possible exclusion criteria: physical condition of the body, or unnatural causes (e.g. ballistic trauma, car accidents or any criminal causes of death).

When asked for clarification on the acceptance of cadavers with cancer or HIV/AIDS, a spokesperson for Wits says: “If the cancer is not exposed externally to the skin we accept the body but with HIV/AIDS, [we] will have to be informed that the donor was HIV/AIDS.”

“It is the practice of the School to inspect the body of a deceased donor to determine if the body is suitable for medical education, science and research. If a body is deemed to be unsuitable because of the above mentioned exceptions and cannot be accepted, the family will be informed of the fact and the body returned to them for disposal,” states Wits.

Preserving the dignity of the deceased

The preservation of the dignity of the deceased is important. Powrie highlights: “When a medical student dissects a body only the area to be dissected in unwrapped. This also assists with preservation. At the first presentation of the cadaver to the medical students, the lecturer initially discusses the surface anatomy before any dissection takes place. Professor Graham Louw (The Head of Anatomy at UCT) gives an introductory lecture about  treating the cadavers with respect and dignity at all times. This would include dressing and behaving appropriately when partaking in   dissection .

The spokesperson for the University of Pretoria adds: “We make sure that students, researchers and staff working on these cadavers are deeply aware of the privilege of working with this donation. They are very much aware that someone passed away, which is inevitable for all of us, but as a final gift to society this person has donated his or her body so that someone else’s life could be saved or quality of life improved. At our university these donations allow us to increase our knowledge of the anatomy of the human body. This knowledge is used to train doctors and other medical professionals as well as help scientists to develop new and better medical procedures.”

For more information on donating your body to science and to find an institution near you, click here.