Donate Your Body To The University

This piece was published in the Kingston Whig Standard on Valentine’s Day, 2013

My actual heart, this Valentine’s Day, is being donated to the Department of Anatomy and Cell Biology at Queen’s University. Along with the rest of my body. They won’t come and collect, of course, until I’m all through using it.

Why would I want to donate my body to science? When I ran my bookshop, a young medical student named Nick Cristoveanu often came in to buy texts. I could see then the fine doctor he would become. In fact, I am now his patient. I want to give others like him the best possible shot at learning all they can. Handing over my body seems like the way to make sure this happens.

I’m thinking of the reminder cowboy songwriter Stuart Hamblen gave us when he wrote This Ol’ House: “Ain’t a-gonna need this house no longer, ain’t a-gonna need this house no more …” He means his aging body when he says “house,” with its metaphorical peeling paint and squeaky hinges. Just a few weeks ago a friend asked me to sing this for him as he lay dying at St. Mary’s Hospital.

To begin the body donation process, I emailed Michael Adams in the department of Biomedical and Molecular Sciences at Botterell Hall. His administrative assistant, Jackie Moore replied. ( I could’ve phoned (613) 533-24352 instead.

Though Jackie wasn’t asking any questions besides name and address, I felt I should qualify my promised donation: “Has all its original parts,” I noted, “cleaned up daily and driven as lightly as life permitted,” in case they needed to metaphorically kick my tires before I signed over the title.

She didn’t seem to need to know anything further so I left out my husband’s missing tonsils. Did I mention my husband is donating too? Strictly his own idea. The 50 years of pipe smoking which have undoubtedly pickled his lungs won’t be a problem either, she said.

When the forms arrived, I had more questions. So I sat down and emailed the friendly Ms. Moore again.

There is no age limit, she said. It was certainly likely the university would accept our bodies. She could have just said, “Read the brochure,” but she was nicer than that. Their short pamphlet, A Noble Intention, really answers it all:

They need to receive your body within 48 hours of death. There’s a number to phone once your number is up. Donating your organs somewhere else makes you unacceptable, as do autopsies, accidents and contagious diseases. But in most cases, they want you, though there cannot be any pre-acceptance.

The brochure promises they will treat your body with “well-deserved respect and dignity.” Each spring the university holds a burial service for the donated bodies, which they use for three years first.

Then they arrange for cremation and burial at the Cataraqui Cemetery at their expense. Each donor’s remains are identified and kept separate with careful records. You can also have the cremated remains back if you prefer.

I got interested in this opportunity when I was discussing alternatives to funerals with a group of older women. (This is the sort of thing the young think anyone over 60 talks about incessantly whenever we get together.)

One person said she wanted to be mummified and stuffed in the back of her sister’s closet, but I think she says this merely to annoy the sister. It isn’t easy to think about that time when spirit and body go their separate ways, but handling what has to be done is one of the many tests of maturity.

“We are all condensed energy,” science says, “waiting to be liberated.”

Different religions say other things about the body, but they all, every single one of them, agree that you should love your neighbour as yourself. Donating your body after death is one way to do that.

McGill University gets about 75 bodies donated a year. Queen’s receives an estimated 20-30. In the UK the country says it needs at least 1,000 bodies donated to keep its medical programs running.

The little pile of chemicals and minerals you leave behind that make up your body (valued at $4.50) can be put to great use by medical science. A last, loving act to benefit your family and countless others.

In “Rules for Being Human” (adapted from Cherie Carter-Scott): “You will receive a body. You may love it or hate it but it will be yours, this time around.” Your responsibility.

Hamblen ends his Ol’ House song with: “I’m a-gettin’ ready to meet the saints!” and then a lovely old baritone echoes: “Ready to meet the saints.”

The way I see it, meeting such an august body as “the saints” will go a lot better if I haven’t negligently left my body lying around back home for my loved ones to deal with. I’m giving my heart away this Valentine’s Day. Along with the rest of me.

Rose DeShaw, a member of the Whig’s Community Editorial Board, is a retired bookseller with prison library experience, and is employed part-time by our community credit union.

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