From the eerie depths of Hades in Greek mythology to the precarious afterlife of Duat in Egyptian lore, what becomes of our soul after we die has been a source of fascination for thousands of years. But what exactly happens to our bodies? It seems that despite recognizing a separation between soul and flesh, our ancestors often showed equal reverence for the latter. Mummification, elaborate burials with numerous oblations, and the continued maintenance of burial grounds show that we deeply care about the fate of our bodies. Yet how we care is a different story.

For those of us who donate our bodies to science, there is almost always a story behind the choice. Some may have been touched by organ donation, some may have struggled with a rare disease and hope to improve the lives of future patients, still, others may be atheists who want to take an industrious approach to their death. Learn about where the study of human anatomy and dissection began and what happens to our bodies after we donate them to science, releasing our soul to persist in Hades, Duat, or otherwise.

Where the Study of Human Anatomy Began

The Egyptians provide us with the first evidence of the study of human anatomy as their embalmers and physicians were advanced for their time. The Edwin Smith Surgical Papyrus, named for the man who bought it, is the oldest known surgical treatise dating back to 1600 BCE. The scroll contains an empirical and rationally informed approach to various traumas such as fractures, tumors, and wounds. It also illustrates the heart and its vessels, liver, spleen, kidneys, hypothalamus, uterus, and bladder. Although Egyptians believed that a vast proportion of illnesses could be healed through magic – implementing spells and incantations in their treatment regimens – their curiosity and study of the human organism set a precedent for all proceeding civilizations.  

Early Improvements on Anatomical Study

Recognizing that a roasted mouse ground up in a vessel of milk was likely not an effective treatment, the Greeks built on the Egyptians’ medical knowledge and treatment protocols. Alcmaeon of Croton was a Greek medical writer and philosopher active during the 5th century BCE. He was the first to posit that the brain was the central organ of sensation and perception and his excision of an animal eye was one of the first recorded dissections in history.

Aristotle Creates his Own Field of Biology

During the 3rd century BCE, Aristotle and several of his peers expanded on using animal dissections to describe various components of the body and to differentiate between species. Aristotelian Biology was thus born, purveying five major processes: metabolism, cyclical temperature regulation, information processing, reproduction, and embryonic development. It wasn’t until the Ptolemaic era that human bodies were dissected, as the anatomy school in Alexandria drew bright medical minds such as Herophilus of Chalcedon and his contemporary Erasistratus of Ceos, who led the field into new territory.

Human Dissection Becomes Taboo

Although human dissection and (debatably) vivisection occurred in Alexandria during the 2nd century BCE, the general practice was sternly frowned upon. This turn of the tide was likely due to a confluence of factors including a backlash in a medical ethos that deemed human anatomy a useless endeavor, relying instead on non-invasive or even random observations. For example, Galen, a renowned Greek anatomist and physician to the gladiators during the 2nd century BCE, gleaned all of his expertise from dissecting the cadavers of pigs and apes. Later on, the predominance of Christianity led to the widespread belief that human dissection was blasphemous, thus prohibiting its practice for several centuries.

Human Dissection is Cool Again

The field of anatomy wasn’t revived until the 12th century in Medieval Europe, as universities in Paris, Bologna, Oxford, Montpellier, and Padua were established. The gradual rise and acceptance of human dissection in service of informing the study of anatomy culminated in 1315 in Bologna with the first sanctioned human dissection since the days of Herophilus and Erasistratus. The pendulum swung back in favor of human dissection for several reasons, including the eventual permission from religious authorities as well as an artistic foray into naturalism, requiring a precise understanding of human anatomy.

Divvying up the Duties of Dissection

Gradually, human dissection in the name of anatomical education became a widespread practice. Yet, the actual anatomist was not completing the dissection. Instead, a Lector would orate for the public, an Ostensor would point to the region meant for dissection, and a Sector, or barber surgeon, would do the deed. This all changed during the 16th century when a Belgian physician by the name of Andreas Vesalius happened on the scene.

Vesalius Changes the Game

Andreas Vesalius insisted that to truly understand anatomy one had to get their hands dirty. His curiosity led him to raid the gallows in Paris and later in Padua for neglected corpses and skeletal remains. However grim, his efforts paid off! Vesalius was able to complete anatomical drawings that displaced many of the longstanding works of Galen, proving that animal anatomy could not be compared to a human’s. Eventually, human dissection became a requirement for anyone undergoing surgical or medical training. The increased demand for bodies precipitated body snatching and even murder during the 18th century in England, leading to some infamous cases on the subject.

The Burking Method

As medical school enrollment increased, macabre entrepreneurs were eager to cash in. Two Irishmen living in Edinburgh named William Burke and William Hare murdered at least 16 people and sold their bodies to schools of anatomy. Over the course of their brutal tenure, they developed a routine whereby they would inebriate their victim and smother them, leaving the buyer of the corpse none the wiser. After Burke’s execution for his crime and subsequent dissection, their method was coined as “Burking." Later, two Londoners by the names of John Bishop and Thomas Williams committed similar crimes, employing a gang of body snatchers to peddle corpses to various medical schools in London. After their execution and dissection, they were referred to as the London Burkers.

Body Snatching at its Pinnacle

As the only legal means of using bodies for dissection during the 18th and 19th centuries was to acquire those who had been condemned to death and dissection by the courts, body snatching became rampant. Euphemistically termed as “resurrectionists" or “resurrection men," they kept the medical schools and other institutions in steady supply of cadavers – assuredly maintaining a “don’t ask, don’t tell" policy. In fact, body snatching was so common that family members of the dead often safeguarded the corpse until burial and then continually surveilled their gravesite afterward. Other elements of detersion included iron coffins and mortsafes, or barred structures that overlay the grave. Eventually, the England government established the Anatomy Act of 1832, allowing the unaccounted bodies of the poor to be donated to medical schools.  

Body Donation in the Modern Day

Although human dissection became a fully acceptable practice by the 15th century, the majority of bodies used were of either criminal or of the poor, whose families were tempted by the prospect of a free burial. Still, further into the 19th and 20th centuries practices weren’t much more puritanical, as slave owners would sell the bodies of their deceased slaves and psychiatric asylum workers would sell the bodies of their patients. Even as Nazi Germany and its Nationalist Regime progressed from 1933 to 1945, they openly used the corpses of the executed political prisoners and camp members. It wasn’t until transplant surgery was developed in the 1950s and the demand for cadavers increased that the issue was addressed. The Uniform Anatomical Gift Act (UAGA) was passed in 1968, asserting that the donor’s wishes superseded that of his or her family’s. This and other initiatives caused an uptick in donations during the latter part of the 20th century, eventually reshaping the social stigma surrounding donating one’s body to science.

So, What Happens When You Donate Your Body to Science?

First, it’s important to note that a body cannot be donated to science if the donor had an infectious disease, like AIDS or Tuberculosis –  thank god for germ theory, am I right? Anyways, there are several veins (pardon the pun) that you may consent to your body being used for after you’ve died. You may donate your body to a number of organizations but the most common is to the state, to a medical school, or to an accredited tissue bank. Whichever option you commit to, it’s important that you choose an institution that is certified by the American Association of Tissue Banks (AATB). There are few regulations surrounding body donation in the United States, so using an AATB accredited association will guarantee that your body is treated with the highest code of ethics. Ultimately, though, what happens with your body is not entirely within your purview; the institution decides how to use it.

Donating Your Body to the State

Any cadaver that is bequeathed to the state may be used for tissue and organ donation as well as research. The first priority is to benefit the living, so it’s only after the body has been excavated of its valuable parts that its remains can be used for research. Interested to know just how many lives you can touch by donating your body to the state? Your organs can save the lives of up to 8 people and your remaining tissues can help up to 50 people.

Donating Your Body to Medical Research

If a cadaver is donated to a medical school, it’s inevitably used for dissection. It’s important that the body is used very soon after it arrives on campus, preferably within a day. This is because once embalming occurs the body is more dissimilar to that of a living person’s, making the education a little less valuable.

Donating Your Body to an Accredited Tissue Bank

Unlike organs which need to be harvested as soon as possible post mortem, tissues can be preserved for longer periods of time and used either in research or in tissue transplants, like a sight-restoring procedure that uses donated corneas. When a cadaver is routed to a tissue bank, the body is often disarticulated to make the most of its parts. After all, even in death, a body is a very valuable thing.

What Other Ways Can a Body be Used?

If a donor finds the aforementioned options “too mainstream" there are other more niche ways their body can be used. They may choose to donate their body to a body farm for forensic research, for display during exhibitions like those found in Body Worlds, for crash test research, for use as a skeleton, or, if you have a condition that’s considered a medical anomaly, you may even choose to donate your body to an institution like the Mütter Museum.

The Nitty Gritty

Let’s explore the logistics of what happens to your body after you donate it – from how organs are harvested, tissues are stored, bodies are embalmed, remains are plastinated, and parts are cleaned and preserved for long-term storage and display.

Organ Harvest

Common organs to donate include the kidneys, heart, liver, pancreas, intestines, and lungs. If the individual has consented to donate their body prior to death, extensive testing is completed including a psychiatric evaluation to ensure they understand the implications of donating. However, if the individual died before documenting how they would like their body to be used (or not used!) the next of kin is notified of the options. Organs can survive after death only a few hours, so consent and completing the necessary work-up for donation must be done as soon as possible. There are two types of death in this case: brain and cardiac. Brain death implies that either the cerebrum is irrevocably damaged but their autonomic functions remain intact, or that their whole brain has died and only life support technology will continue their heart beating and their lungs breathing. In this case, the next of kin can decide to donate their family member’s organs and their body will be alive up until the moment of organ harvest. In cardiac death, the individual may have been spared of initial brain injury (though of course, if oxygen cannot be transported to the brain, this will cause eventual brain damage). This creates a more urgent scenario, as the organs lose valuable life support.

Tissue donation

Tissues are specialized cellular structures and include the heart valves, tendons, bone, skin, and even pancreatic islets. Because tissues can survive longer post mortem, we treat them more flexible (though no less venerable). Tissue can either be allocated for transplant or for research and depending on their fate, each sample will be stored in a different manner. If the tissue is destined for transplant, it is still important to complete the procedure as soon as possible to avoid tissue degradation. However, if this is not an option the tissue can be stored using a hypothermic solution, or storage of the sample at 4 to 10 degrees Celsius. For certain substances like cord blood, longer storage is permissible and cryopreservation or storage of the sample at -80 to -196 degrees Celsius is used. Still, the issue of ice crystal formation is pervasive and can destroy the integrity of the tissue cells.

Preparing a Body for Embalming

Embalming for an open casket funeral is much different than embalming for the preservation of tissues and organs for scientific use. Whereas a funerary embalmer goes through additional steps to restore the appearance of the cadaver, the embalming process is more parsimonious when done for science. That said, the body may be massaged to reverse some of the rigor mortis that occurs, allowing any infusions to properly flow throughout the corpse.

Embalming a Body

After the body has been relieved of any rigor mortis it will be simultaneously drained of its blood and infused with embalming fluid. A drain tube will siphon blood from a vein while a cannula will attach to an artery and allow for administration of a formaldehyde-based solution, most likely Formalin. Formaldehyde is a tissue fixative that works by cross-linking the amino groups in the body, preserving its long term structure and shape. Formaldehyde also serves as an antibacterial, preventing the body from putrefaction and attacks from other microorganisms.

The Final Steps of Embalming

After the arterial system has been thoroughly infused with the embalming fluid, the same will need to be done with the organs. It’s important that all gas and excess fluid that may cause putrefaction is drained and to do this, the embalmer will laparoscopically insert a trocar to both releases the body’s gas and fluids and to wash the abdominal cavity with embalming fluid. Finally, the embalmer will wash the skin with an antibacterial solution before sewing up the incisions and preparing it for use in the lab or another medical setting.

Plastination

Plastination was developed by Dr. Gunther Von Hagens in 1977 and since then it has been used in a variety of teaching and exhibition settings, not the least of which is the notorious Body Worlds tour. It replaces body fluids with curable polymers, creating a well-intact specimen that won’t decay or smell. Plastinating one body requires about 1,500 hours worth of effort and $40,000 to $60,000 of capital – that’s quite an investment, but these cadavers last. The four steps to plastination are a fixation, dehydration, forced impregnation in a vacuum, and curing.

Plastionation Step 1: Fixation

Much like a typical embalming process, the first step in plastination requires the cadaver to be infused with a formaldehyde solution, a process that lasts 3 to 4 hours. Next, the skin and fatty connective tissues must be removed to ready the body for its final rendering – whether it be a simple display of a flayed arm or a full body pose.

Plastination Step 2: Dehydration

After fixing its tissues, the body must then be dehydrated. To accomplish this, the body is bathed in a freezing acetone solution for six weeks. The bath is continually monitored to sustain a preferred water-to-acetone ratio and will likely need to be refreshed several times during the process. Once water can no longer be detected in the bath, the body is completely dehydrated. The specimen is then soaked in a tepid acetone solution to defat it.

Plastionation Step 3: Forced Impregnation in a Vacuum

What sounds like a nightmare is actually just the step that replaces the acetone with a plastic. This is when the magic happens, as the body is placed in a bath of a silicone, polyester or epoxy resin and subjected to a vacuum. This vacuum boils the acetone at a low temperature and forces it to exit the tissues, which in turn creates a pressure differential that draws the plastic inside every cell. The escaping acetone creates bubbles on the surface of the plastic bath which are swiftly suctioned out. The process is complete when no more acetone bubbles appear, in about 2 to 5 weeks.

Plastination Step 4: Curing

Next, the body will be positioned into its desired form using a variety of tools including needles, wires, and clamps. The specimen must then be hardened by either gas, heat, or ultraviolet light and the chosen method is dependent on the plastic used.

Body Exhibition Scandals

The sensational uses of plastination in exhibits like Body Worlds or BODIES… the Exhibition invariably provoked criticism, as evidence of unscrupulous business deals surfaced. In 2001, 56 bodies and hundreds of brain samples were intercepted on their way from the Novosibirsk Medical Academy in Siberia to Von Hagens’ lab in Heidelberg, Germany. The specimens were eventually traced back to a Russian medical examiner who had been previously convicted of selling the bodies of the homeless, prisoners, and of the indigents in hospitals. Although Von Hagen was charged with no wrongdoing, the incident certainly raised some eyebrows. Even more unsettling, a spokesperson from BODIES...the Exhibition admitted that all cadavers were originally unclaimed bodies from China – perhaps the collection would be better-named BODIES… the Embezzled

The Eerie (Albeit Useful) Body Farm

If a body is donated to a body farm, like that of Texas State University’s Freeman Ranch, it will be used for forensic research. By observing decaying bodies, researchers can gain insight on time of death, how different scavengers like insects interact with the body, and how various scenarios impact the decay process, like being locked in the trunk of a car or submerged underwater.

Crash Test Cadavers

As unsavory as it is to imagine, practically every safety feature on a car has been developed as a result of crash test cadavers. The practice mainly uses the bodies of the elderly, making the results admittedly more difficult to generalize, as their bones break and their skin tears more easily than other age groups. That said, they have proved invaluable. Nowadays, testing is moving towards computer simulation to both cut costs and avoid the controversy generated by using cadavers.

The Longview on Body Donation

The knowledge humans have gained from the nearly 2,000 years of experience dissecting our own kind is indispensable. However, the wheels of time, and thus progress, keep turning. As institutions continue to evaluate cheaper options, medical students may encounter virtual dissections in the classroom and research may use simulations instead of the real thing. It's apparent then, that as the field continues to evolve our views on death have a life of their own.