When I was in mortuary school, I had the opportunity to assist with a couple embalmings at a nearby university hospital, UT Southwestern. There is a “willed body” program there to which people may choose to donate their bodies after death. Led into the chilly prep room, I saw the two cadavers which had been laid out on twin embalming tables. As I donned my PPE and helped to get the supplies and solution ready, I silently thanked each of them, as I did everyone I had the honor of observing post-mortem. Before their deaths, these people had made a conscious decision to donate their bodies to this hospital, and they were counting as two of the many embalming cases I still needed to complete before I could graduate. But not only were they helping me, a mere spawn of the funeral home variety, they would be helping countless medical students and patients on the eternal quest to advance medicine. To facilitate life through their deaths.
Sometimes, you hear of people saying they would like to “donate their body to science” one day. Apart from choosing a natural burial, donating your body to science (anatomical bequest) may be the best option for those who are looking for a more environmentally-friendly final disposition. It is also cost-effective. Most donation programs will, following utilization, perform cremation for free or offer a stipend. The remains can then be returned to the family. Not only easy on the environment and the wallet, whole body donation is a selfless act considered by many to be the ultimate gift.
One caveat of choosing to donate your body to science is that you do not usually get to choose how it is utilized. Generally, bequeathed bodies are used for educational purposes, and they are often embalmed (sometimes with help from students or apprentices). You may wish that your body be used to find a cure for some rare disease or cancer, but it’s more likely that it will be chosen as a practice palette for surgical med students. But no matter how your body is used, you can be sure that it will be a gift of monumental importance to the advancement of medicine and science as a whole. You are choosing to take a lasting part in something that could potentially save the life of someone else, while curbing harm to Mother Earth at the same time.
Another eco-friendly option there is to consider is whole body donation to a “body farm.” The picture that pops into your mind is probably close enough to the real thing! At a body farm, cadavers are arranged outside against varying elements of weather, air exposure, animal contact, etc. Scientists study the stages of decomposition in these bodies to learn more about the timing and properties of each stage. This information can be monumentally useful to crime scene investigators as well as to students of forensic anthropology. There is one such location in Texas, Freeman Ranch Body Farm at Texas State’s Forensic Anthropology Research Facility in San Marcos.
If you or someone you love is considering whole body donation in Texas, this website is a great place to start for more information:
Caitlin Doughty and Amber Carvaly are directors at Undertaking LA, a quaint funeral suite located in the middle of the urban hustle of Los Angeles. Fully licensed, and established by Caitlin in 2015, Undertaking LA differentiates itself from today’s more corporate funeral homes by placing all preparation decisions into the hands of the family. Undertaking LA allows- encourages, in fact- families who seek their services to take a central role in preparing their loved one for final disposition. This can include participating in bathing, dressing, laying out the body, deciding between cremation, burial, if there is a need for embalming, etc. These things can happen at the funeral home or at the family's home.
At first glance, this familial approach may seem radically modern or alternative. But family involvement in funeral preparations, especially at home, is not a radical idea by any means; those such as Undertaking LA who implement this approach are simply bringing the family back into engagement with their dead, as it was just a century ago. By doing this, death care is once again normalized, to an extent, and any fears a family may have concerning the body of their loved one may be soothed under the compassionate guidance of experienced professionals. There can be an element of healing to this approach that cannot be attained, at least to such a degree, at “regular” funeral homes.
Before Undertaking LA was founded, the Order of the Good Death was conceived. In 2010 Caitlin Doughty was a new mortuary graduate just trying to find her way in the funeral service world (there are more reasons than one that the industry is not for the faint of heart…!) She started out conventionally with a job at a crematory, but she had bigger ideas about what she wanted death care to look like in the twenty-first century. According to the Order of the Good Death’s website, “…Caitlin dreamed of living in a culture with a more open, honest engagement with death. She believed that change would only happen with a better funeral industry, where the family could be involved with the process, and the dead weren’t hidden behind closed doors...”
And thus, the Order of the Good Death came to be.
“The Order is about making death a part of your life. That means committing to staring down your death fears- whether it be your own death, the death of those you love, the pain of dying, the afterlife (or lack thereof), grief, corpses, bodily decomposition, or all of the above. Accepting that death itself is natural, but the death anxiety and terror of modern culture are not.”
In early 2018 I had the honor of speaking via email with Amber Carvaly of Undertaking LA. She was kind enough to provide me some leads for related work I was doing at the time. The Order of the Good Death and the ideas it promotes are gaining traction, and I was not really expecting a reply from anyone when I sent the email. The fact that I did receive a reply showcases the true desires of Amber, Caitlin, and all of the other members of the Order who want to see more promotion of the death positive movement (yes, that is a thing!) and of a more family-centered funeral service.
Caitlin has written several interesting and highly informative books, including “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematory,” “From Here to Eternity: Traveling the World to Find the Good Death,” and most recently, “Will My Cat Eat My Eyeballs? Big Questions from Tiny Mortals About Death.” Her YouTube channel, Ask a Mortician, is another great resource for those seeking more information. It is sprinkled with respectable humor, and in my opinion is a great place to start the journey toward shedding the fear and stigma of all things death that so permeates our culture.
I am a proud member of The Order of the Good Death and encourage my interested readers to research their ideas on death acceptance for themselves :)