In the latest paradox of the new normal recovery, this time one with distinctly morbid undertones, the Associated Press reports that US medical schools are seeing a surge in the number of people leaving their bodies to science, a trend “attributed to rising funeral costs.”
The good news is that this unexpected shift in many Americans’ attitudes toward death and what happens to their bodies after, will be a boon to medical students and researchers, who dissect cadavers in anatomy class or use them to practice surgical techniques and test new procedures. “Not too long ago, it was taboo. Now we have thousands of registered donors,” said Mark Zavoyna, operations manager for Georgetown University’s body donation program.
It has been a veritable flood of record cadavers: the University of Minnesota said it received more than 550 corpses last year, up from 170 in 2002. The University at Buffalo got almost 600 last year, a doubling over the past decade. Others that reported increases include Duke University, the University of Arizona and state agencies in Maryland and Virginia. ScienceCare, a national tissue bank, now receives 5,000 cadavers a year, twice as many as in 2010.
The bad news is what is prompting this radical shift: while it is true that there has been a decline in cultural inhibitions and religious objections to dissection, and cremation hold less sway today than in the past, there is a far simpler reason why many Americans are turning to this option: “Funerals are expensive. That certainly has something to do with it,” Zavoyna said. “Of course, it almost has this snowball effect, where you get five people to donate, and then their families tell another 25 people.”
Bodies donated to medical schools are cremated once they are no longer needed, and the remains are often returned to their families at no expense. As of 2014, a traditional burial cost around $7,200, an increase of 29 percent from a decade earlier, according to the National Funeral Directors Association.
The corpse glut is not uniform. According to the AP, some parts of the country still struggle with cadaver shortages. A state agency in Illinois has been receiving only 500 donations a year for eight medical schools, down from 750 in the 1980s. Although many programs shun advertising, the Anatomical Gift Association of Illinois is buying more newspaper ads to try to boost numbers.
When donations fall short, Duke and other schools turn to private suppliers that obtain cadavers through donation, often in other countries. In some states, schools can obtain bodies that go unclaimed by their families.
Some medical schools have experimented with alternatives to real bodies, such as rubber or plastic cadavers, or virtual anatomy courses taught on computers. But “there’s no substitute for the real thing, because ultimately these people are going to be taking care of patients,” said Dr. Michael Zenn, a surgery professor at Duke. “It’s just a priceless donation.”
As for all those medical schools who are still unable to fill their cadaver quota, don’t worry: the “recovery” will soon reach you, resulting in a surge of dead bodies whose “owners” could not afford a more dignified final resting place than on the operating table.
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