Bodies donated to local universities helping med students


According to the National Funeral Directors Association, in 2017, the average cost of a funeral for burial was $7,360 while the cost of a cremation is a bit cheaper at $6,260.

But if you’re not in a huge hurry to be interred, and want to save some money, you may want to consider donating your body to science.

State programs are available through Universities in Washington, Idaho, and Montana. Those who consent to donate their bodies can save considerable dollars.

In each state, those who donate their bodies to science have the option of having their cremated remains placed in a state specified cemetery or returned to loved ones.

At Montana State University, they take great care in educating both the donor and their family about the process before accepting an application for the program.

Molly Hopkins is the program manager, she explains that after a person’s body is donated, there are strict guidelines in place to preserve the deceased’s dignity and their identity. “When a donor comes into our program, we give them a number and the only ones who know the name of the donor are myself, the program coordinator, and our director.”

But long before any of that happens; those selected to have their bodies studied for science must first undergo a lengthy application process.
The application must be signed by the donor and two witnesses, preferably, next of kin.

Hopkins says the biggest concern surrounding potential donors and their families is the possibility that the donor body may be lost or forgotten. But everything is tracked from the paperwork to the actual body.

This is important because bodies donated at Montana State University can be sent to other colleges and universities within Montana including Rocky Mountain College in Billings.

Hopkins says that locating the body is not difficult. “Within an hour, sometimes less, we can go to our database and find the exact location and time-frame and we can reassure the family we know exactly where they are and we’re taking good care of them.”

As for the time frame that a University will keep the body, that depends on how the body is studied. In some cases remains are returned to the family within a year, in others, a body can be used for up to five years.

Barbara Stern’s father, Matt Panek, donated his body to science. It wasn’t an easy thing for the family at first, but Stern says she understood why her father was so determined to do so. “I feel like he wanted to do this from the very start,” says Stern. “He was in his late 60’s early 70’s when he began discussing it with the family and felt that it was something that was very important to him. He wanted to give his body for research to medical students.”

And those medical students appreciated his willingness to do so.

For Montana State University first-year medical students, a cadaver is their first patient. And their humanity isn’t lost on those choosing to study in the medical field.

Eric Marceau says that seeing a cadaver for the first time was much more powerful than looking at a picture in a book. Marceau says; “Whenever I look at my cadaver there’s always the thought of this was a human being or this is a human being and you always treat a human being with respect.”

And first-year medical student Vanessa Richardson agrees. In fact, working with cadaver’s has made her think about her own mortality and how she can pay it forward for the next generation of medical students. “I would love to be able to use my being or my person to really expand education. I know I’ve really appreciated my cadaver and what they’ve done. I would like to be able to do that (for) a student someday.”

At Rocky Mountain College students do have the opportunity to dissect their cadaver’s. But this only happens with bodies where the donor has approved of dissection in advance.

Holly Basta is an Assistant Professor of Biology. She explains that dissection only follows a full year of study. “So only once you’ve really had a lot of experience with the cadavers do we trust the students to actually dissect them. They pretty much learn every single thing on the cadaver.They learn all the different muscles, where they originate and insert on the bones.”

Rick Hibbs is a student in the RMC program. He explains that anything that comes out of the body will go back in. “Any of the parts dissected out or anything that gets severed in the dissection all do go back whole, so we have to keep track of everything.”

Hibbs and his classmates at RMC will participate in a Convocation at the end of the spring semester. Basta explains; “Some of them will write thank you letters to the donors or the families. Some have even done a poem, musical composition. We like to leave it up to the students to really understand that these donors had a life before they came to us and they really are extraordinary people.”

Even though medical programs need bodies to be donated, there are some things that would preclude them from accepting a donation. Those include: 

  • Open or unhealed wounds at time of death

  • Massive systemic infections (e.g., MRSA, sepsis, or C-diff)

  • Diseases such as HIV, hepatitis, multiple sclerosis, or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Lou Gehrigs’s Disease)

  • Death due to trauma (e.g., car accident, homicide, or suicide)

  • If an autopsy has to be or was performed

  • If the donor is exceptionally obese or emaciated at the time of death

  • If the initial embalming is not completed within 6-12 hours after death

For more information on the body donation program in Montana click here.

In Washington, click here,

In Idaho, click here.

There is no state body donation program in Wyoming.


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