Author Is a Cop-Out

posted by Mary Roach Jul 15, 2003

[This is a guest post by Mary Roach as part of the Virtual Book Tour for Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers.]

So I wrote this book (buy from Amazon) about the bizarre, amazing, heroic things dead people have managed to achieve in their careers as research cadavers. And I find it all quite impressive and inspiring. You would think, given how I feel and what I know, that by now I'd have contacted the local medical school to fill out a willed body donor form. I have not. I'm a cop-out. I tell people it's because my husband is squeamish and would reather not picture me on a slab, in pieces. This is true, but it's not the whole story. You know what it is? I'll tell you. This is pathetic. I'm having a hard time with the thought of being old, withered, revolting and naked — did I mention naked? — in front of strangers. I don't mind their taking out my spleen, cutting off a leg — none of that bothers me. I simply don't like the idea of healthy young people looking at me and being quietly disgusted by my withered flesh and dilapidated hull. (I mean, I'm 44, and already it's happening!) It's embarrassing. Of course, you can't be embarrassed when you're dead. I'm presumptively embarrassed — the way I am when I come back from an aggressively hip party and imagine all the things that were said behind my back. Though I'll never hear them, and quite possibly they were never said, they're unsettling nonetheless. How disappointing to realize that even death isn't free from neurotic insecurity!

Very few people donate their bodies to science. I'm curious as to the reasons. What keeps you from doing it? Surely most people have better reasons than mine!

Reader comments

LizJul 15, 2003 at 11:23PM

I have made the commitment: when I die, they can do whatever they want with me...I'd rather they use organs if possible, but going the cadaver route is ok too. As a pre-med, I think I figured if someone's going to do it so I can learn and hopefully benefit from what might be termed the ultimate generosity, then I should return that in kind.

My only stipulation: on my card, I wrote: "Please make sure I'm really dead". This is because after watching "Monty Python and The Holy Grail" way too many times, I had horrible dreams of being on the slab, yelling "I'm not dead yet!" when they made the y-incision.

SamJul 15, 2003 at 11:44PM

Fear. Fear keeps me from doing it. Signing away my body would seem to be bad luck somehow (it's too solid a reminder of death).

J.D. RothJul 16, 2003 at 12:59AM

My wife, a scientist through-and-through, sometimes nags me to become a donor. She is.

Though I'm not religious in any way, and have no belief in any kind of spirit world, and know that my body is just going to be cremated or rot in the ground, I still cannot bring myself to yield it to science when I've gone.

I have no concrete opposition to the idea. It just bugs me. And I don't know why.

Maybe, as Sam says above, it's fear.

Mostly, though, I think it has to do with the fact that I'm scared of death.

canadian laneJul 16, 2003 at 1:09AM

after death, it's just a dead body. It's either science and organ donation or ashes. if i'm going to have someone incinerate my body, i might as well let someone else take all the good parts first.

besides - i will be dead i don't need my body any longer. hell, take it now for all i care. it's barely working somedays as it is.

ChoireJul 16, 2003 at 1:31AM

Thank you for reminding me -- just now I marked the appropriate box and signed the back of my driver's license. Now at least I'm an organ donor, if not a research cadaver-to-be.

(Boy you're gonna feel a little creeped out if I die in the next 48 hours, eh? Well, imagine how I'll feel.)

Andy BaioJul 16, 2003 at 1:50AM

I have a pink dot, too. What good is my body to me if I'm dead? Give my organs to the ill, tear out my eyes and heart for study, hang my skeleton in a science classroom, and burn the rest.

Or maybe I'll have myself stuffed and kept in the den.

MarkmomukhamoJul 16, 2003 at 1:59AM

There are cultural implications as well. In the Philippines where it's a predominantly Catholic country, most funerals turn into a big clan reunion. They need a body to mourn of the deceased of course so donating it to science might not be high on the list. Most medical schools get their supply of cadavers from unclaimed bodies at the local morgue.

Mary DuanJul 16, 2003 at 2:28AM

The "being naked in front of strangers" is what does it for me. Even dead, I don't want to know that there are strangers standing around me saying, "Good lord, it's really clear she didn't work out, isn't it."

They can take all of my organs though, and do with them what they will.

On a related note, when I was a reporter in LA in the early 90s, I covered the trial of a Pasadena funeral home owner accused of selling body parts--eyes, organs, what have you. I was interviewing her and she interrupted me to say, "You know, you have lovely eyes. My sister had eyes like that."

megnutJul 16, 2003 at 9:52AM

I used to assume I would do this when I was younger, but honestly haven't thought about it in years (though I am an organ donor on my license). What I wonder now is, can your family get the ashes back after the med students are done with you? Because frankly, I don't much care about it, but I always thought I'd like to have my ashes spread in some of my favorite spots (woods behind my grandparents country home, ocean off Nantucket, at the top of my favorite ski hill, etc.) and it would be nice if I could be useful to science and then finally "rest" in my favorite locations. Or do I need to read the book to find out the answer to this question?

jkottkeJul 16, 2003 at 9:58AM

I'm currently not a donor, but I don't have a clear reason why. Maybe when I (finally) get my NY drivers license, I'll sign up for it. Or maybe I'll leave it up to my loved ones (can you do that? I don't even know...). It doesn't matter to me what happens to my body after I die, but if having it around for the funeral or having my ashes to scatter somewhere makes it easier for my friends and family to deal with, that would be preferable, I think.

EamonJul 16, 2003 at 11:00AM

I'm Catholic and an organ donor. I believe the body is something sacred, but once you pass on, your soul doesn't have much use for it anymore. I've spent a lot of time thinking about donating my entire body, but I believe it'll be important to the people I leave behind that there's something physical left to visit, to reminisce over, to say goodbye to. Several people important to me have passed away over the years, and visiting their graves is always a powerful experience, something concrete, physical, deep, and familiar. I don't know if it'd be the same thing sans corps.

Of course, my dad thinks I'll be staggering blindly around Heaven like a mindless zombie, begging strangers noiselessly to return my lungs, but he's a nut.

brianJul 16, 2003 at 11:11AM

I'm not a donor, much for the same reasons you aren't. Okay, I also fear that one day I will have a grandchild that will go to medical school and find his me on his slab. Can you imagine? Well...that would probably never happen, but you never know!

I look forward to reading your book!

John BedardJul 16, 2003 at 11:26AM

Maybe this will be a fresh perspective:

I'm not religious. I don't (and won't) have any descendents. I'm not afraid of death. I don't care what happens to my body or soul after death. I'm just selfish. I don't want humanity to gain anything from my passing.

Or maybe this will just be a dark, depressing perspective.

RE: organ donation... years ago I designed a web site for the state's organ donor program. Man that was awkward trying to get through that project deflecting the, "are you a donor?" questions. Even though the web site was a freebie, I couldn't quite bring myself to respond, "bugger off."

AllisonJul 16, 2003 at 11:27AM

Your book was fabulous and fascinating. Congratulations! I loved every word of it. My body is not going to research. I can't even give you a good reason why not (especially when I now know how important this donation would be), I just know for certain I don't want it to. My body is going for organ donation though, and the rest cremated.

monkeyinaboxJul 16, 2003 at 12:50PM

I'm an organ donor, but I feel like all my parts will be all used up and no good when I'm done. Damn I need a vacation.

GrahamJul 16, 2003 at 1:50PM

A few years back we found out my dad, a doctor, had Fuch's Dystrophy, a degenerative eye disease that was making it harder and harder for him to see (even difficult to even drive). If it weren't for the corneal donor (luckily corneas have a much lower rate of rejection than other organs), my dad would most likely require help getting to/from work, writing, using the computer, playing tennis--all the tasks that everyone else (myself included) takes for granted. I was a donor before, but I'm even a stronger advocate now.

I just picked up your book at a Barnes and Noble on Sunday, Ms. Roach. I'm starting medical school in the fall, and I think it'll be a great read as I take anatomy. At most schools now, they do ceremonies before the class begins anatomy, where students reflect on the gift that these people have given the class--the ability to learn, help, and hopefully save the lives of others.

HarryJul 16, 2003 at 2:04PM

I'm just an organ donor. Perhaps it's only because body donation is difficult to sign up for, and seemingly less private. In Washington State, you can easily donate your organs at the driver's license office. Drive in Seattle and you quickly observe that many drivers have already donated their brains.

To donate a body, you have to visit a Web site, call a number, request forms, notify your physician, et cetera.

Also, why aren't there more options? Why is science the only venue? It seems to me that I should be able to donate my body to art or music or fashion as well. Since my organs will be taken, you could use the rest of me for a very interesting piece of carry-on luggage. Or maybe you could stand me upright and use my torso for an entertainment center.

JJul 16, 2003 at 3:13PM

Most folks need *something* tangible, as mentioned by a previous post. But my dying wish is also that my death never be a burden for my descendants (i.e., something happens to the graveyard - it's inevitable & I worry about it, now that my grandmother has recently died and been buried).

As much as going to science appeals to me personally, my compromise is to stay just an organ donor for now, then be cremated. My only stickler is that the ashes be scattered.

KrisJul 16, 2003 at 3:41PM

I'm an organ donor, but I doubt anyone would want my organs. They're probably sub-par, most of me is. I also want to be cremated and my ashes spread on a nudist beach. I want people to play nude beach-volleyball on my ashes. If that's so wrong, I don't want to be right.

matthewJul 16, 2003 at 4:52PM

perhaps it's the gross factor that's making me pull out of certain "all organ" donations, but if i can't be useful enough to others in my lifetime alone, i shouldn't want be useful after i'm gone.

Mary RoachJul 16, 2003 at 5:10PM

Thanks, all. Wanted to respond to a couple things people asked. If you donate your whole cadaver to science, you don't get your cremated remains back. Lot of universities will take a representative sample of the ashes (actually not ashes, but finely ground bone remnants), and scatter them. So if you did a memorial service, the remains couldn't be there. This isn't the case with organ donation. If you wind up a candidate for organ donation -- braindead but on a respirator, so the organs are kept viable -- then your family does get the body back. It's like any other corpose, just a little lighter through the middle.

As for leaving it up to your loved ones, yes, that can be done. Families can not only make the decision to donate a loved one's body to science (as an altruistic act, or as revenge - their call), but they can also veto the dead person's wishes. If a family is completely freaked out over the thought of dad being dissected, no willed body program director is going to proceed against their wishes. As one guy put it, "They're the ones who have to live with it."

Bill AltreuterJul 16, 2003 at 5:19PM

My daughter is fond of saying that the worst reason for doing or not doing something is because it is "traditional". To her way of thinking, this rational means that you are not thinking about what you are doing, and the effect of this is to amplify bad practices.

I feel much the same way about arguments for or against any practice that cite religion-- indeed, tradition is probably best understood as a sort of secular religion. Organ donation helps people who are alive and suffering live better lives. I cannot imagine how anyone could be resistant to organ donation if they would consider that fact. The grieving relatives and friends who want a body to mourn? My goodness, isn't that the most ghoulish thing you've ever heard of? Those people would rather have someone with failing kidneys suffer, so they can look at a body? I think not. I think, actually, that people do not donate their organs, or their bodies, because they are squeamish, and I think that religion, or tradition, gets them off the hook for it, in their minds.

Religion should try to relieve suffering. If we think about the acts of charity that religions often call us to perform, it makes sense that this little act of charity should be one that religion would encourage. I suspect that many who invoke religion as their justification for declining to help others as their final act have not consulted with their spiritual advisiors, and I suggest that a spiritual advisor who says that it is better to go to one's grave intact than it is to help a blind person regain their sight is a religious advisor that is not much use to anyone.

If a body is so important, go the organ donation route. Bodies in coffins never look like the person did when the person was alive, but the funeral home will be able to take what's left and make it look as presentable as bodies ever are.

Mary RoachJul 16, 2003 at 5:20PM

Harry, I'm happy to report that you can indeed donate your body to art. Go to the web site of BodyWorlds, and you'll find a sign-up sheet that'll put you on your way to becoming a posed, plastinated cadaver in one of Gunther Von Hagens anatomy/art shows.

Someone recently asked me at a reading whether he could donate his body to, say, literature. Some quick thinker in the back goes, "Only colons and appendixes... "

SamJul 16, 2003 at 5:57PM

As a doctor, recent medical student, and organ donor, I've obviously thought a good bit about this...

I'm not sure how I feel about donating my own body to science, having been on the other side. Don't get me wrong, I think it's an incredible noble, worthy thing to do, and medical students certainly treat the cadavers with due respect. It's just that, well, imagine your queasiness about being on a slab, and then imagine having experience both sides of the fence! I imagine I will change my mind though.

As for organ donation, I'm about 110% for it, and quite an advocate. My philosophy is, if you are for *receiving* and organ, you should logically be pro-*donating* one should you have the chance (keep inn mind that *very* few deaths occur in a manner to leave you suitable for being a donor, so the odds are that it won't even come up. But if it does, then it's just an incredible gift). I've been involved in patients receiving transplants, and also on several occasions had patients for whom I arranged donation upon their death. Not to worry, we aren't anxious to "pull the plug" prematurely for those who designate themselves as donors (quite the contrary, in the case of a donor, we are trying hard to keep their physiological body "alive" and in working order for donation even after they are, in the traditional sense, dead.)

As somebody said in an earlier comment, it is your family, and not you, who ultimately ends up making the decision (regardless of things written on your license). So whatever decision you make, make sure to have a talk about this with family.

Greg KnaussJul 17, 2003 at 2:39AM

I'm not a body donor because I've always wanted to have my ashes thrown in the face of an enemy. I really like the thought of them staggering around, sputtering and blinking madly, trying desperately to oh Christ, oh God get it out, get it out. I think I swallowed some. Oh, God.

I'm informed by my wife, however, that the Greek Orthodox Church -- which I joined before we got married -- doesn't allow cremation. So I'm going to have to settle for having my cadaver thrown at them instead.

jayelJul 17, 2003 at 8:36AM

I think you have pretty summed it up. Does it for me anyway...

JeffJul 17, 2003 at 9:30AM

I just renewed my license and the DMV woman asked me if I wanted to remain an organ donor. When I replied in the affirmative she said "Good! You know I just don't understand why some people decide after they've been donors to stop. If they've had chemo I could understand. But it's like a fashion thing to them. No rhyme or reason. They just don't want to do it anymore."

I just took a deep breath and checked off the box.

ShakeJul 21, 2003 at 6:24AM

I've seen too many eerie reports of doctors and hospitals signing away a person before they are really dead... something about the current definition of death gives me the heebie jeebies - people are so eager for body parts that they'll sign your death as quickly as possible. I kinda wanna rot for a bit *just* in case. Yea, call me selfish but I won't die easy!

benJul 22, 2003 at 3:27PM

FWIW: My organs may go, but I'm hanging on to the body. I've got plans for it.

I'm a potter, and have already told my friends that whomever survives me will have to take my ashes, and use them in a ceramic glaze (there are many historical bone-ash glazes, some of which I use a lot), so I can go in the kiln one last time.

Also, since I do a lot of 2500+ degree firings, I was upset to learn crematories only go to 800 degrees or so. High fire all the way, baby!

SarahJul 24, 2003 at 4:20AM

I'm a former Biomedical Science student, and perhaps it's because we got the leftovers after the Med students had finished dissecting, but I didn't see the most respectful treatment of cadaver bits.

In fact, some of the stuff I saw in that lab will give me the heebie-jeebies for the rest of my life... so they can have my organs, but no way is any body part of mine ending up in a dissecting lab!

Also, when someone commented on how ugly the cadavers were, the lab demonstrator said the donors almost invariably died slowly and painfully of some hideous disease, knowing they wouldn't be given a decent burial any other way - they had no relatives, and/or were too poor to pay for it themselves. So, they donated to get the burial, bulk memorial service, basic headstone, and bag of assorted bits that'd be thrown in their coffin. Made it all seem very sad to me.

taraJul 24, 2003 at 2:34PM

My father and I have discussed what to do with the remains, but the organ donor issue was never discussed - I've simply assumed that if they're donate-able, they'll be donated, for both of us. (I'll be double checking that one now!) What we did decide on is to go the diamond route, with Life Gem. I like the idea of speeding up the geologic process, and I've got a physical reminder of the beauty of his life.

Melissa DawnJul 24, 2003 at 7:09PM

Wow! I seem to be coming from the opposite side of this discussion. I am not an organ donor, but I am more than willing to donate my body to science. Don't get me wrong here, I was an organ donor up until 1998. In 1998 I was diagnosed with juvenile diabetes, which affects every organ in the body. I've never actually checked into it but just rather assumed that because of my situation my organs would be worthless. However, since I suffer this terrible disease every second of my life and I know what a death sentence it is, I am very willing to donate my body for research to cure this, or any other disease or to educate those who will find cures.

Previously I had wanted my body cremated and my ashes scattered. I've never wanted a gravesite or any "remains" for people to "visit" after my death. For one thing there are all those people who treated you rotten while you were living only to realize their mistake after you're dead. Nice! You're no longer able to tell them to "go to hell" and that's when they'll start coming 'round and realizing how wonderful you were. No thank you! Appreciate me while I'm living or bugger off! And the other reason is that to me the dead are dead. Yes, have memories of those people, but visiting them when they are dead and not there?!? No thanks. Especially burial sites, in my opinion - they just take up space where homes for the homeless could be built. I just feel there should be more emphasis on the living, not the dead. Oh, and I agree 100% that if you are willing to accept a donated organ you should be an organ donor, unless you are physically incapable of being such due to disease.

Christina KniskernJul 25, 2003 at 3:43AM

I just had to read all of these entries, I am extremely fascinated with death and life after death. I've noted that plenty of people do not donate organs or their body (to sciene) because they are afraid of dying or having some curse cast upon them after signing up. I would love to push all those thoughts aside and let people know that living in a life of regret is no way to live at all. I would rather die with the knowledge that my organs and my body can help others, rather than fearing death and not donating anything and dying. Hopefully my family would do the right thing and donate what they can, but death just isn't a topic brought up much in my family so I will never know what will come of the situation.

I plan to purchase Mary Roach's book as soon as possible, so that I may find answers to my numerous questions. Now, I am an eighteen year old girl, just finished high school this year. And I admit, Death can be scary if you sit and dwell on it. But I am willing to give my body to science so that cures can be found, great doctors can be made, and more knowledge can be passed to future generations. I didn't know about the free headstone for body donations, but I would like that very much as to not put a debt on my funeral services when the time comes.

I just have one question to ask here though, and I'm sure it is answered in the book, but can those who cannot donate blood, be eligible for organ and body donations? I bet it depends on the reasons, but me for example, I lived in England around '85 (Madcow and what not went around) and I lived in Korea when I was younger. (Hospitals in Korea gave substantially larger amounts of TB to boost resistance, I don't think it's done the same anymore, but sometimes my blood shows up as TB positive.) With these two factors in mind, I wonder if I am eligible? It would be a tremendous disappoint if I couldn't. I'm terribly upset I can't donate blood as it is.

Well I appreciate any feedback.

Steve WoodJul 29, 2003 at 1:01PM

I'll bet some people aren't donors because of the movie "COMA" and related not-dead-yet nightmare scenarios.

I'm personally opposed to the fact that even if you haven't said yes to donation, medicos will approach your family with the papers. Doesn't anyone else think that if you've said no (by not saying "yes"), your family should be spared what will no doubt be a manipulative argument levelled at them in a time of emotional turmoil? I have visions of a slimy hospital-employed manipulator using survivor-guilt to coerce the family into signing over the body of a non-donor, leaving them wondering if they did the right thing for the rest of their lives.

China harvests organs from executed prisoners, which makes for a huge conflict of interest in the sentencing process -- since the hospitals are run by the state, and the politicos want to be healthy. Shades of Larry Niven's Gil Hamilton/organlegger stories.


In western nations, money talks, some of us are leary of being the poor guy in a car accident when the rich industrialist needs a liver.

Personally, I've always thought that a steady, adequate supply of obtainable transplants would slow down progress on alternatives--Xenotransplantation, regeneration, tissue cloning, etc.

I consider these technologies to be the real, practical future of medicine, and I don't want to live in a goulish future where perfect transplantation commoditizes the human body. I _want_ the human organ supply to be unequal to the demand, to force research into the alternatives. I'd much rather never need a transplant than have the option of one.

Whether I sign my donor card or not, I'm sure that someone, somewhere will get a slice of me when I go, if they really want it. As a corpse, I will be in a poor position to defend myself. The dead don't vote, so who in the political landscape will lobby for them?

essAug 10, 2003 at 10:05PM

Although I think we should be moving more toward synthetics, I am an organ donor and science can have my body.

However, I've told all my relatives to be sure and try to bargain with the hospital so that my liver or whatever might be used to defray some bills. Every little bit helps.

You can do that, you know - I mean bargain with body parts when somebody dies in an accident or something that leaves the good bits undamaged.

This thread is closed to new comments. Thanks to everyone who responded.