When you do lectures on the history of how medical schools procured bodies for anatomical learning, inevitably someone in the audience is going to ask about what you want done with your body when you die. Knowing the desperate and sometimes illegal measures that have been taken in the past for medical students to learn anatomy, and how even today there are never enough donors, my answer quickly became clear. As cheesy as it may sound, I am dedicating my life — and my death — to the education of medical students. To have my final physical act on earth being towards that aim — I think there's real poetry in that.
Poetry aside, donating my body to science has its perks. USC will take care of a lot of the logistics and costs that my family would normally be saddled with. My family has to call USC within 48 hours of my death, but after that, they will come and pick up the body (as long as I die within a 50-mile radius of campus), and the school will file the death certificate with the proper authorities.
When the students are done with me, which could be anywhere from a week to four years later, the school will cremate the rest of me and return the ashes to my family. Body donation is convenient, inexpensive or nearly free, and after your family makes the initial call, professionals handle the details so family can focus on what's important instead of making harried arrangements. Also the students of USC's Keck School of Medicine have a wonderful tradition of holding a Donor Appreciation Ceremony at the end of the semester. They invite the donors' family members, if they wish to attend, and share moving tributes and appreciative poetry to thank donors for the learning opportunities they have provided the students.
Plans and backup plans
All of that is, of course, subject to my dying the right way. If I'm killed in a car wreck or in another traumatic event, if I've been autopsied, if I'm over 200 pounds, or if I die of an infectious disease, my body won't be accepted by the school. I'm also an organ donor, and if doctors harvest my living organs (with the exception of eyes), then my dead body is no good to the anatomy students. There emerges an interesting hierarchy of who gets first dibs on my corpse, and I'm still working out what my plan B is if my body's not accepted as an anatomical gift for whatever reason.
I plan to keep the organ donation option on my driver's license, because if there's a way for my body to help a living person in dire need, then I feel that that should take precedence. Of course, the stars that have to align to make live organ donation a possibility are also pretty rare. So failing that, my body will go to the medical students, and if I don't qualify for that, I have to make alternative arrangements. So I guess what I'm really still pondering is my plan C. These questions are more complicated than people think, which is all the more reason that everyone should plan ahead.
After being asked the question yet again at the end of one of my lectures, I finally requested the forms for anatomical gift donation. I went over the details with my husband, and then noticed that I needed the signatures of two witnesses. My husband and I live alone, so I had to wait until the right visitor came to our house to ask them to sign my fate away. I decided against bringing out the forms at the Christmas party, and similarly did not ask for a signature during my elderly in-laws' birthday celebration. But finally one night, when my friend Jenelle came over for dinner, I popped the question to her, and she happily signed the forms for me.
The next day at work, when I handed in the donation forms, the anatomical gift program coordinator expressed her happy surprise to have a healthy 32-year-old woman making her final wishes known. I told her that I thought engaging with the topic is important, even if my death is likely to be decades down the road.
Let's talk about death
That's why my friend Caitlin Doughty (who happens to be a mortician) and I started Death Salon, a collective of writers, artists, intellectuals and death professionals who get together annually to do performances for the public. The goal is to encourage people to talk about death in healthy, smart, and creative ways. Our first event was in L.A., and we've got future Death Salons coming up in London and New York, with smaller one-day events in San Francisco and other locations.
People want to talk about death, but they don't know how to do it, because it's been a taboo subject for so long. The result is that these issues often don't get discussed until it's too late. We're hoping to start to change that.
Telling my family about my decision to donate my body to science had an unintended consequence. My grandmother, who I call Mom Mom, is what we refer to in Delco as a "pistol," even as she nears her 90th birthday. She is a very traditional and devout Irish Catholic, who had already bought some burial plots for herself and some of the other family members, as she put it, "in a good neighborhood, and on sale, too!" For a long time, burial was the only method that American Catholics used, though attitudes nationwide towards cremation are changing rapidly and cremation will soon represent more than half of the fates of American corpses. Body donation is an even more unusual choice. The option wasn't governed by any legislation until the late 1960s. So I was surprised to find out that, after hearing about my decision, Mom Mom made arrangements to donate her body to Jefferson Hospital in Philadelphia.
With all of her arrangements made, we can all rest a little easier, even though we all hope we won't have to use Jefferson's services any time soon. I really couldn't be prouder of my Mom Mom and the generous choice she's made to give this final gift.
Megan Curran Rosenbloom grew up in Delaware County, Pennsylvania, and lived in Philadelphia until five years ago when she moved to Los Angeles to take a job as a medical librarian at the University of Southern California. She works with rare books in the history of medicine.