Ever thought about donating your body?

Dissecting room in the University of Leicester's Medical School

“Donating your body for medical education isn’t everyone’s cup of tea but you’d be surprised how many people consider it. 

“One aspect that’s common is that they can all see how beneficial it will be to our medical students,” says Michelle Lawrence – Body Donation Programme Manager at the University of Leicester. 

Out of around 45 medical schools across the UK, Leicester is one of only 18 which accepts body donations. 

“It’s definitely one of the advantages to studying here because death and dealing with it is part of the job they’re going into. Equally, knowing how the body works and being able to physically see this in front of you is better than any simulated model you can get. 

“Our mortuary can store up to 64 bodies for educational purposes.” 

Donors give written, witnessed living consent and are strongly recommended to advise their families of their intentions verbally and in writing where possible. In addition, donors are discouraged from writing their wishes solely in their wills without having completed a consent form. 

The Human Tissue Authority regulates the use of bodies donated for medical education. 

“Once the donor passes, it’s up to their next of kin to get in touch with us so that, if we can accept, we can make arrangements to bring them into our care,” says Michelle.

 “It may sound insensitive but we have a time frame of eight days to collect a donor (if we can accept) to ensure the condition of their body is ideal for our students to use and for our embalming process to begin. We liaise with our own subcontracted funeral director to ensure this happens. 

“Donors may be with us for up to three years for teaching. Their identity won’t ever be known by students but details such as their occupation and age are revealed, along with their cause of death, which helps students to empathise and learn. 

“It’s very important to humanise our donors as much as we can. Students have to remember that this is someone’s loved one and show them the respect and dignity that goes along with that. It’s all part of developing their empathy skills and we know these are vital to the caring profession.

“Although donors’ consent when they are living, there may be reasons why they cannot be accepted after death. For example, any donor that requires a post mortem or has had an infectious disease, can’t be accepted and sometimes that means we have to have difficult conversations with family members,” says Michelle. 

“We always advise donors to talk to their next of kin about donation, but equally we explain to them the reasons why we might not be able to accept them - having a Plan B and letting others know what that is, is important.” 

Cremation services for donors are held at Bretby Crematorium in Burton-on-Trent. 

“Families can choose to attend, give a reading and select music for their service if they wish,” says Michelle. 

Services are individual and always attended by Michelle or one of her colleagues from the Medical School. 

“If families don’t wish to be notified of the cremation, then they don’t hear from us again but of course the service still goes ahead, and my colleagues and I attend these services too.” 

“I’ve attended many beautiful services,” Michelle adds. 

“It’s important for us to be there because we want to show our gratitude to the donor and their family. 

“Music can be such an emotive part of a ceremony and over the years we’ve had everything from Great Balls of Fire to Country Roads – whatever a family picks it provides that personal element to it. Our funeral directors ensure that every service is conducted to the highest standard. 

“Some families hold their own funeral service at a place and time of their own choosing - it’s entirely their decision to make.” 

In addition to this, the Medical School holds a memorial service on campus every three years for donors at the university as a way of thanks - often these are attended by medical students who pay their respects.

Michelle said: “I love my job and I’ve always loved talking to people. We deal with families at the worst of times and having lost people close to myself, I think it’s important that I know how that feels for others. I want to make a difference and help them get through that and make the process easier if that’s possible, while respecting the final wishes of the donor. 

“Equally, I talk to people all the time who are considering donation and just want to ask questions. We’re more than happy to do that so that they know what the process is and can be assured in death what will happen to them if they come here to us. I think for many it’s a huge comfort knowing that. 

“When I started out as Body Donation Programme Manager at the University of Leicester 10 years ago it was mainly older people who were happy to donate, nowadays, it’s people of all ages. We don’t have an upper age limit – our oldest donor was over 100.

“It can be many years between someone deciding to donate and becoming a donor. One lady phones me every year to say she’s still here and to give me her amazing recipes for ice cream. I love talking to her and I know she has every confidence in the decision she’s made to donate her body. 

“I also have a folder full of thank you cards from donor families and it means the world to know that they were happy with the service we provided to them and their loved one.” 

Anyone interested in finding out more about the Body Donation Programme and how it works can find more information online or call 0116 252 3082 for an informal chat.