When Jackie Moore’s father died in 2013, his family decided to donate his body to Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont., to be studied by anatomy students. In the last 15 years of his life, he lived through multiple strokes, diverticulitis, a colostomy, and triple bypass surgery.
Although her father, 84, hadn’t made the decision before his death to be donated, Moore—who is the administrative coordinator for the human body donor program at Queen’s—knew his body would be in good hands.
“He was cognitively going downhill,” she said in an interview with The Pigeon. “By that point, he wasn’t really able to make such a decision for himself.”
“I wish that he had known about this and could have made a decision, because I think he would have been really thrilled, knowing that he was going to be a specimen to be looked at for education and research, and to have people learn from him.”
Having worked in the program for a decade, Moore has come to recognize commonalities among donors. Like her father, they’re often practical and pragmatic.
“It felt right for my dad,” she said.
This sentiment rings true for the hundreds of Canadians who donate their bodies to science after death every year.
How does donating your body work?
Seventeen medical schools in Canada operate body bequeathal programs to educate students about anatomy.
Donating a whole body is different from giving organs. Tissues and organs are used only for transplants and to save lives, whereas whole bodies are used for education.
Organ donation is also more commonplace than full-body donations. Under a new law that came into effect on Jan. 18, 2021, Nova Scotians 18 years and older automatically become organ donors after they die, unless they opt out. In the rest of Canada, residents can sign up online, while many jurisdictions are phasing out the option to consent on driver’s licences.
A person can consent to give their body prior to death by registering with a nearby program, or the decision can be made post-mortem by someone who has legal custody over the body, such as a family member.
In some cases, even if someone has registered to donate their body, the decision can be overturned by the person who overseeing the donor’s estate after they die. Registration isn’t legally binding.
“The key is to make sure that your loved ones know [what you want],” Moore said.
Schools will ultimately decide whether to accept the donation depending on if the donor meets their age and health requirements, which vary between programs.
After death, donors’ bodies are preserved and delivered. Corpses could stay in the program for up to four years, sometimes longer.
After a cadaver fulfils its purpose, the body is cremated and returned to the family or, if it’s unclaimed—which happens when the program can’t track down next-of-kin—buried in a designated cemetery. Some programs will host annual or biennial memorial services for the donors’ loved ones.
The criminal past of cadaver research
Cadaver research has come a long way. In the 1800s, Canadian medical students and professors were notorious for breaking into cemeteries and digging up corpses to study anatomy, according to the Toronto Star.
The number of legally obtained cadavers couldn’t keep up with the demand as enrolment rose in medical schools. Body snatchers were rarely prosecuted for their thievery because there were few laws that prohibited the practice.
In the mid-19th century, several residents of a Montreal convent died of typhoid fever. Their corpses were stolen by medical students, sparking international outrage because many of the deceased were American.
This triggered amendments to the Anatomy Act of Quebec, which was first passed in 1843. Changes to the legislation required public institutions “for the insane and infirm” to give corpses to medical schools. This increased the supply of cadavers, which led to the decline of body snatching.
New technology ensures medical schools will never have to return to their old methods of obtaining cadavers, even when supply is low. For example, synthetic cadavers or virtual reality offer schools an alternative option.
SynDaver is a company that sells full-size, reusable human and animal models—but this can cost tens of thousands of dollars. The cost of transporting, preserving, storing, cremating, and burying bodies isn’t disclosed by programs, but one specimen is still cheaper than a fake model.
A study by the Campbell University School of Osteopathic Medicine in North Carolina found that while synthetic models clarify aspects of anatomy and can reduce expenses over time, they still can’t match the benefits of a human cadaver.
“Students in the classroom can hear the theory about the structure of the heart, they can see pictures of the structure of the heart, but it’s not until they’re in the lab when they have that heart in their hand that they can really appreciate [it],” said Dr. Les MacKenzie, an anatomy professor at Queen’s University, in an interview.
Queen’s receives 20 to 40 body donations every year. The university has an active marketing campaign to recruit potential donors and educate the public.
“We reach out to old-age homes, we have pamphlet information, [and] we talk with the funeral homes in our area and the immediate surrounding areas,” MacKenzie explained.
Naturally, donors are more likely to be seniors. Programs often have an age requirement of 18 or older for donors, but even so, there tends to be a different sentiment for people who die prematurely, which is why loved ones may choose to honour the person through a funeral rather than a donation.
Pandemic impacts on donor programs
Some schools have stopped receiving donations during the COVID-19 pandemic. The Cumming School of Medicine at the University of Calgary in Alberta, which receives around 60 cadavers a year, has been one of the only programs in Canada to continue accepting donors throughout the pandemic, according to George Mulvey, operations manager of the school’s Advanced Technical Skills Simulation Laboratory.
The school’s infectious disease experts say the risk of catching a respiratory pathogen from a deceased person is rare. Donors are screened upon arrival, just in case.
Meanwhile, the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg hasn’t been accepting donors for which COVID-19 was the cause of death. The school receives an average of 35 to 40 cadavers per year.
“This is because we have no knowledge that is 100 per cent saying what the transmission is like,” said Dr. Sabine Hombach-Klonisch, a professor in the school’s department of human anatomy and cell science.
“We didn’t want to impose any additional risk to the technicians in the lab and to everyone who was handling those bodies.”
Who chooses to become a donor?
Haley Linklater is the body bequeathal program coordinator at Western University in London, Ont., which receives 70 to 90 donors annually. She explained the children of senior-aged Canadians often help their parents decide whether to donate their bodies.
“When pragmatic baby boomers are helping their aged parents make decisions, it’s less and less likely to be a full, traditional funeral anymore,” Linklater said. “They’re looking to do celebrations of life on their own time and they see a burial of the body as wastefulness.”
The use of cadavers is gradually changing, she added. They’re no longer just “silent teachers”—as they’re nicknamed—for traditional medical students. Many other disciplines can benefit from using real bodies for educational purposes.
“There are increased demands from other health-care programs—physical therapy [and] kinesiology—that are using cadavers for the study of anatomy,” she said. “We’re also working on increasing the amount of our research donors for things like novel techniques in surgery.”
Every donor is different, inside and out. Linklater compares them to snowflakes, each showcasing their own anomalies to prepare students for the real world, where patients present distinct characteristics.
Those who arrange body bequeathals or interact with cadavers in the classroom know the weight of the decision to donate all too well.
MacKenzie hasn’t made up his mind about if he’ll donate his body to science.
“I would think that the decision would not just necessarily be mine, but come from my family as well.”
If he does donate, it won’t be to Queen’s; most programs have a policy saying their faculty members can’t donate their bodies because of the potential impact on students and colleagues.
Hombach-Klonisch said she would consider donating her body to science. After all, the moment she came face to face with a cadaver for the first time as a medical student in Germany is what reinforced her decision to pursue a career in medicine, she said.
“[It] immediately linked me to the reason that I went into med school,” she said. “[It’s not] only about knowledge, and career, and the position, but it is about the people.”
“That is the core of it—the people that you are going to help [and] the people that seek help from you.”
Sydney Hildebrandt is a reporter for The Times Winnipeg. She’s a Carleton University graduate with degrees in journalism and geography.