Updated: Apr 13
Organ, tissue, and full body donation might not be everyone’s favourite dinner party discussion topic— but as uncomfortable as it may be, it’s important to consider when planning your legacy.
If you decide to donate your organs, tissue, or full body, you have to either register before death, or someone with legal custody of your body after death will have to give consent.
This wasn’t always the case though. We’ve come a long way from the grave-robbing medical students of the 19th century.
Yes, you read that right.
The demand for anatomical subjects for medical schools far outnumbered the amount that could be legally provided so students sometimes took measures into their own hands. Students would either pay someone else or go to cemeteries themselves armed with shovels.
Luckily, things have changed.
That’s why today we’re demystifying organ, tissue, and full body donation so you can make a well-informed decision about your legacy.
What is organ and tissue donation?
Organ and tissue donation is the process of donating organs and/or tissue to someone waiting for a transplant. This is often done after the donor has passed away but it is possible to donate a kidney or part of the liver while you're still alive.
If organs or tissue can’t be used for a transplant, they may be used for medical education or scientific research if you consented before your passing.
What is full body donation?
Full body donation is what’s often referred to as “donating your body to science” and is a key component of health sciences education.
In most cases, if the body is accepted, the only expenses your next-of-kin may be responsible for are related to transportation. These transportation costs will vary depending how far from the university your body is located. Some provinces will have a maximum distance for transportation; if you live outside of that area, you may not be able to register to donate your body.
Visit the Organ, Tissue and Full Body Donation section on our Resource page for a list that will link straight to each province’s full body donation options. At this time, the Yukon, Nunavut, and Northwest Territories don’t have any full body donation programs established.
The importance of organ, tissue and body donation
While great strides have been made in medicine since the first successful organ donation in 1954, there’s still no alternative to live organ and tissue donation. Organ and tissue donation remains a critical aspect of medicine. One person donating their organs and tissue has the potential to save up to 8 lives and improve the quality of life for 75 others.
Similarly, there have been technological advancements that help students learn about the human body without cadaver dissection. While some argue that these advancements have made cadaver dissections unnecessary, others, including Chris Ruff, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Functional Anatomy and Evolution, disagree.
Ruff believes there’s nothing that replicates learning from unique human specimens.
“Even if people did almost as well on written tests by reading a book and looking at a computer, I don't think they'd be as good doctors without this [dissection] experience," he was quoted as saying in an article for John Hopkins Magazine.
How to have conversations with family about your organ and body donation wishes
Your next-of-kin have the final say on organ, tissue and full body donation after you’ve passed away so it’s important to talk to them about your wishes.
We recommend that you sit down with your family and/or your executors and have a conversation about why you made the decision to donate your organs, tissue or body. Knowing your wishes and why it’s important to you can help make their decision simpler. When Logan Boulet passed away unexpectedly as a result of the Humboldt Broncos tragedy, his family knew exactly what his wishes were because they'd had that conversation and understood why organ donation was important to him. Keep in mind that not everyone who registers to donate their body is accepted by the academic institution so it’s important to make alternative arrangements.
If you’re uncomfortable with speaking about your wishes, try writing a letter instead for your family and/or your executors and allow them to ask follow-up questions. Consider including:
How you heard about organ, tissue or full body donation
What inspired you to register
Why registering is important to you
Why their support is important
By the time your will is read or your safety deposit box is opened, the window for organ, tissue or full body donation will have closed. It’s best to include your wishes in your advanced care planning document, which will vary in name across Canada, and give a copy of your consent form to your executor or next-of-kin.
How EstateBox can help make your organ and body donation wishes clear
While you may have talked to your next-of-kin about your wishes for organ, tissue, or body donation, it can be difficult to recall conversations during stressful times. Few times in life are as stressful as losing a loved one.
With our upcoming final wishes section (or “stream”, as we call it), you’ll be able to upload your wishes for organ, tissue, and full body donation. Adding these details to your EstateBox and adding your loved ones as delegates will ensure your wishes are easily accessible for them at all times. Create your account today and enjoy a 60-day free trial (no credit card or code required) to help you get started on your life and legacy plan.
While we’re passionate about all things estate planning, we’re not professionals. We recommend speaking with your lawyer or financial advisor when putting together an estate plan.