The Practical Nobility of Donating Your Body to Science

A crematory employee explores the many ways our remains can go.

There are many words a woman in love longs to hear. “I’ll love you forever, darling,” and “Will it be a diamond this year?” are two fine examples. But young lovers take note: Above all else, the phrase every girl truly wants to hear is “Hi, this is Amy from Science Support; I’m dropping off some heads.”

Westwind Cremation and Burial had ongoing cremation contracts with two anatomical-donation facilities, of which Science Support was one. Several dozen lucky Californians who donated their bodies to be poked and prodded for the good of scientific inquiry ended their journey in my fiery care.

After the phone call from Amy, a truck crept through the gate at Westwind and pulled up next to the rear entrance where my co-worker Chris unloaded his daily round of bodies. The back door creaked open. Two young men poked their heads in and looked around suspiciously. “Uh … yes, afternoon ma’am, we’re Science Support here with, your, uh … heads.”

No matter how many times the transport truck came to visit Westwind, the Science Support drivers always looked supremely uncomfortable. They couldn’t drop their cargo and get out of the crematory fast enough. It made me proud to know that the drivers of Ye Olde Travelling Body Parts Truck were intimidated by my workplace.

Science Support is essentially a body broker, accepting whole dead bodies for donation and then dividing them up and selling the parts, as a junkyard does for old cars. Science Support isn’t the only name in the body-broker game. Several large companies trade in this macabre (but quite legal) field.

There are many positives to donating your body to science. In the modern death landscape, body donation is the only surefire way to make sure your death is free. After your death, Science Support will pick up your corpse, transport you to their facility, use you to cure cancer (note: results may vary), and then pay for your cremation at Westwind.

Indeed, your body might be used on the front lines of medical research. My own grandfather died after a long, debilitating bout with Alzheimer’s, including one memorable Christmas Eve where he managed to steal the car keys in the middle of the night and disappear for seven hours into downtown Honolulu. Ho-ho-horrible Christmas morning to you too, family. If the donated heads of Alzheimer’s patients, with brains containing the plaques and tangles that turned my grandfather into a stranger, could make a difference to other families, off with their heads, I say.

Unfortunately, not every dead body goes to what might be considered “noble ends.” There is a slim possibility that your donated head will be the head, the head that holds the key to the mysteries of the twenty-first century’s great disease epidemics. But it is equally possible your body will end up being used to train a new crop of Beverly Hills plastic surgeons in the art of the facelift. Or dumped out of a plane to test parachute technology. Your body is donated to science in a very … general way. Where your parts go is not up to you.

The use of corpses for the advancement of science has come a long way in the past four hundred years. In the sixteenth century, medicine was practiced with a feeble grasp of how the human body actually functioned. Medical texts misunderstood everything from how blood flowed through the body to the locations of vital organs to what caused sickness to develop in the first place (accepted answer: imbalances in the body’s four “humors”—phlegm, blood, black bile, and yellow bile). Renaissance artist Andreas Vesalius, upset that medical students were learning human anatomy by dissecting dogs, secretly plucked corpses of criminals from the gallows. It wasn’t until the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries that surgical training schools consistently provided human anatomical dissections for teaching and research. The demand for corpses was so high that professors took to robbing fresh graves for bodies. Or, in the case of William Burke and William Hare in nineteenth-century Scotland, murdering living people (16 of them) and selling their bodies to be dissected by a public anatomical lecturer.

The two men from Science Support rolled a large box off the back of their truck. In the box were two human heads, surrounded by ice packs filled with small gelled beads that resembled Dippin’ Dots ice cream. As soon as I signed for the shipment, the gentlemen slammed shut the back of their truck and screeched out of the parking lot. This exchange was typical. The Science Support fellows regularly brought deliveries of torsos, heads, and other assorted viscera.

The heads in this Science Support box belonged, respectively, to a gentleman of 80 and a lady of 78. Each head came with long identification sheets. The sheets didn’t give us their names or where they were from, but did provide a whole list of superfluous fun facts like “Head No.1 is allergic to shellfish, tomatoes, morphine, and strawberries,” and “Head No. 2 has brain cancer and is prone to hay fever.”

There is little chance my two heads could have known each other in real life, but I wanted to imagine they were two lovers separated by war. The Crusades, perhaps. The Crusades seemed like a romantic, violence-soaked backdrop for this sort of thing. Maybe they were victims of a single guillotine blade during the French Revolution. Or perhaps the early American frontier—had they been scalped? I pulled back the gel ice packs to peek in. No, no, these heads had their scalps intact. Regardless, here they were, together, on their way to the eternal pyre.

Hesitant, I peeked into the box of heads. I toyed with the idea of not unwrapping them. They could go straight in the cremation machine, right? My boss, Mike, popped up behind my shoulder, always watching. “You gotta take those gel packs out; those aren’t good for the cremation machine.”

“Won’t I have to take the heads out to do that?” I asked.

“Yeah, well, let’s see what kind of woman you are,” he replied, arms crossed.

I gingerly pulled out the man’s head (No. 1, allergic to shellfish, tomatoes, morphine, and strawberries). It was squishy, heavier than I expected it to be. Roughly the weight of a bowling ball but far more unruly, thanks to his brain distributing mass unevenly. A person really needed two hands to hold it.

“Alas, poor Yorick!” I proclaimed to my head. Our literary references for decapitated heads were at the ready, a kind of funeral-industry improv game.

Mike finished off with a rambling story about Joel-Peter Witkin, the avant-garde artist who procured heads from Mexican morgues and photographed them in elaborate arrangements alongside hermaphrodites and dwarves in mythical costume. Witkin said his desire to create this dark imagery came from witnessing a horrific car accident as a young boy, where a small girl was decapitated, her life-less head rolling to a stop at his feet. Mike always had to win the prize for esoterica.

I admired people, like Head No. 1 and Head No. 2, who had given up on a traditional funeral and the idea of post-death “dignity” for the good of research. It was très moderne.

Did that mean I was considering such an end for myself? Au contraire. I had a violent reaction to the thought of being fragmented in this way. It seemed like a serious loss of control to have my head lying in a box somewhere, the unbridled anonymity, only a number and my shellfish allergy to define me. My mother had always told me that it didn’t matter what we did with her dead body: “Just put me in a Hefty bag out on the curb for the trash guys for all I care.” No, Mother. Donating your body to science was certainly noble, but I revolted at the thought of anonymous portions, sections, and parts scattered about town.

Self-control has always been important to me. My grandfather, the man who went on the Alzheimer’s-induced joyride on Christmas morning, had been a full colonel in the United States Army. He commanded the tank destroyers in the Korean War, learned Farsi and hobnobbed with the Shah of Iran, and spent his later years running Hawaii’s army base. He was a strict man with definite ideas about how men, women, and children (read: me) should behave. All those ideas went to pot at the end of his life, when Alzheimer’s made him confused, sad, and socially inappropriate.

The worst part of his disease was the way it eroded his self-control, and since Alzheimer’s is in part genetic, it offered daily reminders of how it might someday erode mine as well. Then again, death brings an inevitable loss of control. It seemed unfair that I could spend a lifetime making sure I was dressed well and saying all the right things only to end up dead and powerless at the end. Naked on a cold white table, boobs flopped to the side, blood seeping out the side of my mouth, some random funeral home worker hosing me down.

I, of all people, had no rational reason to be against scientific donation, against the fragmentation of the body. Part of the fear is cultural. The dismemberment of the body prior to a Tibetan Sky Burial is difficult to accept even though, rationally, cremation is just another kind of fragmentation. The cousin of a friend was killed in Afghanistan. There was a brief period of time after the death that his mother received distressing reports that the roadside bomb that killed him had sent his limbs in all directions. She was relieved to discover his body was intact, even though his body was flown home to be placed directly into the cremation chamber, transformed by fire into thousands upon thousands of anonymous chunks of inorganic bone.

Like it or not, some of those bones will be irretrievable from the cracks between the floor and the wall of the cremation machine. The official State of California cremation authorization acknowledges this phenomenon with the following language:

The chamber is composed of ceramic or other material which disintegrates slightly during each cremation and the product of that disintegration is commingled with the cremated remains … Some residue remains in the cracks and uneven places of the chamber.

In layman’s terms: When you’re pulled out of the machine post-cremation, some of the machine comes with you—and some of your bones stay behind. “Commingling,” it’s called.

No matter how many times I dragged the mini retort broom across the breaks in the ceramic surface, fragments of each body were lost. Not that I didn’t try. I attempted to gather each sliver. The hot air would scorch my face as I stuck my body a little too far into the machine, dislodging trapped bones with the mini broom until the straw bristles melted into a stump.

Once, while sweeping out the cremation machine, a hot bone fragment launched itself out at me. I accidentally stepped on it and burned a hole deep into the rubber sole of my boot. “Goddammit!” I yelled, and with an involuntary jerk of the knee I kicked the bone in a high arc across the crematory. It landed somewhere behind a row of gurneys. After five minutes crawling on my hands and knees I found the ember and matched the piece to the bone-shaped hole in my boot. You too will be fragmented.

This article has been adapted from Caitlin Doughty's Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: And Other Lessons From the Crematory.