Leaving your body.

Not as in astral projection or anything airy fairy at all.  More as in: what are you going to do with it when you’ve finished with it?

It is possible in most developed areas of the world with medical schools and research institutions to leave your body as a donation for students, schools and researchers, rather than having a standard funeral of whatever religion, or normal cultural ceremony following death.  You can find out the closest contact point for the addresses and places to enquire by entering a suitable question into a search engine.

As always what I am going to tell you about is my own subjective experience of this, it isn’t advice, it’s merely to tell you what I have done and how I felt about it and hopefully to guide you past some of the pitfalls.

I had no idea that my parents had decided to do this.  The first thing I knew about it was the day after my father died when my cousins turned up at the hospital, hassling me to go back to the house to let them in to search for the will.  Some years previously when I had had a falling out with my abusive adopted parents, (probably fifty years too late, but I eventually got up the nerve to protest and was immediately rejected) the cousin I thought of as the nearest thing to a brother began visiting my parents and cultivating them.  They rewrote their will, making him executor, and, he maybe hoped, major beneficiary.  At the house when I let him and his new wife of three years in, they immediately began ransacking the papers in the study and found the will while I was upstairs, opening  a bedroom window.  The will they found was in an envelope addressed to me, together with the lists of possessions and who was to have what, which has subsequently disappeared.

I think they had already skimmed it when I came down, because they were looking a bit deflated.  Glancing down it, the second thing that jumped out was the clause that said he left his body to medical science in accordance with the 2004 Act.  (The first thing that jumped out was the numbers.  It turned out that: ‘A nice young man from an accountants had turned up at the door offering a good deal on will writing.  As he was very well spoken and nicely dressed we let him in.’  The nice young man was indeed from an accountants, though he could so easily have been any confidence trickster you care to name.  The will, therefore, was full of accounts: I leave four fifteenths of the eight sixty-fourths left after division of the investments to the second cousin twice removed on Tuesday last of the full moon but not if there are an uneven number of days in the month.)  This is not the actual wording but a very accurate flavour of the complexity and leads me to my first piece of advice.  Do not let a nice young man who comes to the door, or an accountant, or a shoemaker, or the window cleaner, write your will, get the proper person to do it, a solicitor.  My parents had always been under the erroneous impression that the major beneficiary of the will could not be the executor.  As a result they appointed three executors, three cousins, all at a great distance and all with their own problems and all of whom caused more problems than they solved and a great deal of expense and a lot of travelling up and down the country.  So the first thing to work out with the help of a solicitor is who will actually be at hand to execute the will and who is able to do so and, also, to change the executors as time goes by if they become infirm, move abroad, or take on other large responsibilities.  One of the first things my mother’s new solicitor pointed out is that the reason the executors could be being very obstructive and bossy (which they were) is because executors may have to turn up in courts of law and take various oaths.  It’s quite serious and will vary depending where in the world you are reading this.  I suggest entering a question about what the executor of a will has to do following the death, into your search engine and choosing your executor after you have the answers.

In the event the grabby cousin was a blessing in disguise: left to my own devices and full of grief I would not have looked for the will until it was too late to carry out the wish of my father to have his body left to medical science.

The problem with a dead body, as any cannibal worth his salt will tell you, is that it is meat.  Meat goes off.  In August, quickly.  A decomposing body is not of any help to medical science, to understand why we have to think the unthinkable: brace yourself.

What does that actually mean: ‘leave my body to medical science’?

It can mean several things.  It can mean medical students, starting at eighteen years of age, get to see and examine an actual human body.  They will watch it dissected and dissect it themselves.  They will cut it open, follow the nerves with a scalpel, try to dissect out the blood vessels, crack open the ribs, see where the heart is and try to remove it.  And so on. You get the picture.  And so did I, the day after my father had died.  Medical students can also include dentists, who we’d all prefer to practice drilling on the teeth of people who need no pain control before they have a go at ours while we are alive.  To do these things they need bodies which are normal.  Bodies that are abnormally short, tall, twisted, deformed, thin, fat and so on are of no use because the medical students need to know what is normal first before they tackle all the oddities among us.  Fairly obviously they do not need to dissect bodies that have contagious conditions that would be of danger to the students.  Accordingly, after death, the usual doctor of the dead body will be required to sign papers declaring that, apart from being dead, the patient was perfectly healthy.

Bodies are also needed for research.  New drugs, surgical procedures, invented medical equipment and advances of all kinds are better tested on human tissue from donors before they are tried on you, feeling a bit poorly, in your hospital bed.  So the person fiddling around with a scalpel and your loved one, could be a practised surgeon investigating a new technique he’s thought of before he gets to the operating theatre with a breathing person.

The third use I already had experience of thirty years ago.  If you put Laverick et al Legionnaires Disease into a search engine, you’ll find my husband in 1979.  He got the six year research post into a new disease that was killing people very quickly.  You’ll find mention of the chief of the lab and the man who took the pictures but it was my husband who, every day for six years, turned up at work and smeared bits of dead people’s lungs on to a microscope slide, in an effort to make the same thing show up in people while they were still alive.  He did it.  Within the time he developed a stain, a way of colouring the material on the slide so that the bugs showed up.  I was the third person in the world to see Legionella Pneumophila when I went to the lab to collect him on the day they had just managed to take an electron micrograph of the creature.  Disappointingly, for a thing that had killed so many people, it didn’t even have teeth; it was just a small fuzzy stick.  These days if you get Legionnaires Disease you’ll be diagnosed by a machine, given the right antibiotic, have a bit of time off work and recover.  Just don’t ignore a chesty cough, especially if you’ve been hanging round a building site, as the bug comes from newly worked earth.

So, of all people, I should have been unfazed by a relative leaving themselves to medical science.  I was not.  It’s quite different when it’s your relative and a surprise.  I can write about it but I still can’t think about it.  In particular because I have just discovered that my father didn’t want to do it; my mother coerced him.  I suffered for more than a year thinking he  was punishing me in some way, that it was some awful message of rejection.  I just couldn’t understand it.  Once I learned what had actually happened, that my mother’s force of will had prevailed, I felt much calmer.

So the first thing to note about donating your body is that you cannot do it as a surprise.  In the event my cousin got very  aggressive and threatened me with solicitors if I took the will out of the house, so I had to take my father’s will, left for me, clandestinely out of the building, scan and photocopy it and send it electronically and return the next day, driving a hundred miles in fear of what the cousin would do if he got there before me.

All of this in a race against the clock.  My father died on Friday – at the weekend labs do not work.  As he had died in hospital there was immediate storage in a mortuary and all the certification necessary for the body to be removed with paper work.

After you have thoroughly discussed your desire to donate your body with your next of kin and made sure they are happy with your decision, or, at least, are not utterly repulsed, you then have to be careful when you die.  If you die on a bank holiday, in the middle of a disaster during a heat wave, in the middle of Christmas or any time when normal services are suspended and your cadaver may rot, then all bets are off and your rotting corpse will have to be cremated or buried as quickly as possible after the holiday/disaster/heat wave.   You’ll be mush, mate.

I would suggest that the order to tackle things is:

1 Use a search engine to find the details of facilities that may be interested near you and read some of their literature.

2 Discuss your desire thoroughly with your next of kin or other interested parties.

3 If they are OK with you donating then do more research.  You need to find out, for example, if you die at home, whether a local undertaker is used to working with research facilities and can provide temporary storage.  (Most can).  You will have to pay for the storage when the event occurs.

4 You then need to fill in the forms from the University, research Hospital or wherever, return them and inform the relatives you have done so.

5 And now you, finally, make your will saying you want this to happen and keep the papers from wherever is accepting your body with the will, somewhere everyone knows to find it.  It would be a good idea if the executor and the relatives knew which University, which solicitor and which undertaker.  Pay the solicitor for writing the will and that’s you done, for a while, unless circumstances alter, an executor dies, or addresses change.

You can change your mind in writing to the research facility in the future and must bear in mind that your desire may not happen if circumstances are against it at the time.  The first time round I was taken by surprise, hindered, and upset.  It made a sad time, during which I was taking care of my mother, who was very affected, bereaved and needing full time attention, much worse than it should have been.

For security reasons I did not announce the death in the local paper.  After my mother-in-law died my father-in-law put an announcement in the paper and was promptly burgled.  As a result of the lack of announcement I got endless phone calls from friends asking when the funeral was going to be.  My mother decided she didn’t want to be informed when the eventual cremation (arranged by the University) would be.  I went to the University memorial service for all donors, later in the year and found it upsetting.  My husband, trying to help, asked if they could tell us when the cremation took place and they phoned us to say it already had, just after my birthday.

Unconsulted and done as a surprise unilateral decision the entire event was and continued to be, like someone particularly evil twisting a corkscrew in my soul.

Which was why, second time round I have done things differently.  I discovered from a leaflet in the specialist brain doctor’s waiting room that demented brains are urgently needed for medical research, as are normal brains, as a control.  This is something I can understand.  Four million people in the UK alone are affected by some kind of dementia.  The disease is as terrifying a plague as Legionnaires Disease was in the Seventies.

So, having taken all the steps I’ve listed, except my mothers will, which she rewrote back in the autumn, with a proper solicitor and without all the maths except sensible things like: I leave a thousand pounds to……..  and including a clause I asked for stating that if all the money is needed for her care in her lifetime all bets are off, I think we are prepared.

I went and stayed for three days, so I could catch my mother on a good day.  I asked her one day about it and the next day we read the papers and she signed all the forms herself.  There were forms I had also taken in the event that she was too tired to write and I had to write it for her, these needed a witness to make sure it was of her own volition.  In the event it was not necessary, she was quite sure that was what she wanted and thought the brain research was a good idea.

I then contacted a funeral director near her, who was helpful.  Subsequently I left instructions for the carers, in case she dies suddenly when I am not there.

One of the benefits of donating is that the research facility will bear the cost of the eventual cremation, which usually takes place early in the morning before the normal day for crematoria begins.  Having talked to the undertaker about this, I feel slightly happier about my father, though not much.

It is curious that you have to make so many plans for the one thing you cannot control at all, your death, with plans that may not come to fruition anyway.  But if you make them and think in advance about the unthinkable and face it bravely, your death, or the death of a loved one, could help to conquer the latest disease, or train the doctor or surgeon who will make the breakthrough.

Knowledge can be your greatest legacy to the future.  Somewhere out there a scientist is sitting with a microscope slide and a puzzled expression; someone has to give the permission for the specimen to get on to the slide before he can get started.

Could it be you?


JaneLaverick.com – like Louis Pasteur’s wife, without the long black dress.

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