Photograph by Lynn Johnson
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Colored blue from the polyvinyl alcohol to help prevent freezer burn, Susan Potter was prepared to be frozen at -15°F in 2015. In 2017, she was sawed into four blocks and cut into 27,000 slices to become a virtual cadaver. In 2000, Potter had donated her body to science at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus through the Anatomical Board of the State of Colorado.

Photograph by Lynn Johnson
ScienceExplainer

How to donate your body to science

Do you donate your whole body, or just your organs? Who accepts donations? And what happens to your cadaver? Get the basics on body donation.

Roughly 18 years ago, a woman named Susan Potter asked to donate her body to science when she died. Now, she lives on as the highest-resolution digital cadaver that exists to date. Potter’s story, detailed in the January issue of National Geographic, has inspired many people to ask: How do I donate my body to science?

Bear in mind that if you decide to donate your body, chances are slim you will also become a digital cadaver. That process is highly intensive, and so far, only two people have become official Visible Humans. Instead, your cadaver will most likely be used for teaching purposes in medical schools. Sometimes, donated corpses even help teach forensics teams how bodies decompose, like in the program at the University of Tennessee's Forensic Anthropology Center.

She donated her body to science, and now she'll live forever Follow the life, death, and groundbreaking 3D resurrection of Susan Potter whose body became a high resolution digital cadaver.

The United States does not have a centralized governing agency for whole-body donations, though the American Association of Anatomists has come up with a policy for how bodies should be handled when they’re donated. For instance, the policy states that donations must follow all state and local laws, and “donation literature should describe all possible uses of donated bodies at that institution.”

In many places, your state’s anatomical board is the main institution that accepts applications for whole-body donation, and that organization decides where the body is sent. In other states, such as Nebraska, the body-donation process is centralized through the state anatomical board, but the donor can choose which medical institution the body goes to. In yet other states, the state university system manages donations.

Generally, these institutions do not charge for body donation, though the University of Alabama asks for $750 to cover the costs of transportation, preservation, maintenance, and ultimately cremation. For-profit tissue brokers also exist. It is legal to sell bodies and body parts in the U.S., and some people choose to use brokers because they market their services and will cover the costs of claiming and transporting the body. Of course, then they will go on to sell the body parts, and the system is not closely regulated.

Certain physical conditions at the time of death can prevent acceptance to a whole-body donation program, including obesity, communicable diseases, jaundice, severe trauma to the body, and decomposition. Organ donations are handled differently from whole-body donations, and often times, an individual cannot be both an organ donor and a whole-body donor.

To find out who you can contact to make a body donation in your state, check out this list maintained by the Anatomical Board of the State of Florida.