The Gift of Donation: Organ Donation and Whole Body Donation Explained

donate2blife
Phot Cred: Better Health Facts

Many times, the donation process in the United States begins when one recognizes the opportunity to help others and give back to society. Before a donor decides to donate organs or the whole body at the time of death, it’s important for the donor to understand the different types of donation, how the process works, and where to turn for guidance when making the decision to say “yes” to donation.

For funeral directors, understanding the process can help them educate the families they serve. For potential donors, being informed about the necessary steps can alleviate any fears and help them make an informed decision. OGR has put together some helpful information on how this process works in the U.S. 

Organ/Tissue Donation

120,000 Americans are waiting for an organ.

22 people in the U.S. die each day waiting for an organ.

1 organ donor can save up to 8 lives.

The most common type of donation is the recovery of organs and tissues for transplant. Nearly 120,000 people in the United States are waiting for an organ, and more than 22 people will die as they wait each day. For people suffering from organ failure, the medical treatment of organ transplantation offers hope for a second chance at life. One organ donor alone can save up to 8 lives.

The process of organ and tissue donation involves partnerships between regional hospitals, organ procurement organizations (OPOs), and transplant specialists. Anyone can register as a donor to give legal consent for the donation of their organs after they die, but donation is not considered as an option until death has been declared.

According to Gift of Life Donor Program, how donation can proceed is contingent upon the two types of death: brain death and cardiac death. Brain death offers the best opportunity for transplantation because the vital organs are still functioning. Declaring someone brain dead can be confusing for families because the person can feel warm to the touch and still look alive. While doctors consider this a form of death, families oftentimes are not willing to give up hope that their loved one may still recover. In contrast, cardiac death provides little chance that the organs can be transplanted. When the heart stops beating, the vital organs lose their functionality very quickly.

red-love-heart-valentinesWhen a hospital patient is declared brain dead, a nurse or physician is required to call their local OPO to see if the patient is a candidate for donation. If the potential donor made the decision to donate prior to death, a donor specialist helps the family through the recovery process. If a prior decision was not made, the specialist discusses the gift of donation with the family. Once the family consents to donate, the medical history of the donor is reviewed, and potential recipients are identified. If the potential donor is approved, organs are then recovered and transplants are performed. (Source: Gift of Life Donor Program)

The body is then returned to the family, and they can go forward with a normal burial or cremation. In this final step, a funeral director works with the donor family to make funeral arrangements, which could include an open casket and/or visitation. Although the donation is an invasive procedure, every effort is made to minimize visible changes and reconstruction is done by the recovery staff and should have no major impact to an open casket visitation.

If you are considering organ and/or tissue donation and would like more information, contact your local OPO through the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services.

Whole Body Donation

Experts estimate just 10,000 – 15,000 bodies are donated annually to medical schools in the United States.

While organ and tissue donation is a gift from one individual to another, whole body donation, also referred to anatomical donation, is a gift from one individual to society. Donating one’s body to science can make a lasting impact for generations to come. Medical schools are always in need of whole body donations to support their research efforts and professional training programs. The U.S. federal government does not regulate body donation, so it is difficult to gather truly accurate statistics. Experts estimate 10,000 to 15,000 bodies are donated annually to medical schools in the U.S.

Whole body donor programs can be found all across the county. Donors must pre-register with one of these programs if they know they would like to donate their body at the time of death. After death, a medical screening is issued to determine if the potential donor meets current research criteria. If the deceased did not provide consent for donation prior to death, only the legal next-of-kin can provide consent. If the donation is accepted, the donor program typically covers all costs, including transportation, cremation, and filing of the death certificate.

After the deceased’s tissue has been received and used for research, the tissue not used is cremated and returned to the donor’s family. Upon receipt of the cremated remains, the donor family can work with a funeral director to arrange a memorial service.

One disadvantage to whole body donation is that it may not allow for a full celebration of the decedent’s life as the family might wish. Unlike organ and tissue donation, whole body donation eliminates the option for an open casket funeral because a body is not present. However, the family of a body donor should not be left uninformed of their options. Funeral directors can take this opportunity to discuss the importance and benefits of memorialization.

You can learn more about whole body donation by visiting Science sunny-person-woman-sittingCare, the world’s largest accredited whole body donation program.

If you are considering becoming a donor, be sure to discuss the issue with your family. They are an integral part of the process and will be the ones working to fulfill your wish when you die.

Saying “yes” to donation is a big commitment, and you want to ensure that your decision to donate is right for you and your family.


ShutterBug Headshots Austin TX
By Diane Durbin
OGR Membership Coordinator

If you are considering organ and/or tissue donation and would like more information, contact your local OPO through the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services. You can learn more about whole body donation by visiting Science Care, the world’s largest accredited whole body donation program.