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Donating a body for anatomical examination: Frequently Asked Questions

Will the body donation consent form I signed 15 years ago still be accepted?

Under the Human Tissue Act 2004 (HTA 2004), current consent has to be in the form of a written statement of intent, signed and dated by the donor themselves, and also signed and dated by a witness. Although the new law affecting body donation came into force on 1 September 2006, it allows documented and valid consent for body donation made under the old law to be honoured i.e. forms signed before 1-09-2006. It is likely that an old form will be headed 'Anatomy Act 1984' and provided it has been signed twice and dated before 1st September 2006, it is valid for the purposes of donation. You therefore do not need to complete new forms, but if you are updating your Will you may wish to include, or revise, a statement of intention to donate your body.

Please note that the Department will not hold copies of any Anatomy consent form produced before 1st September 2006, so it is vital that if you have one of these it is kept in a safe place, as it must be produced at the time of death. We cannot, by law, accept any potential donor without valid consent. Consent from an Executor or family member is not enough.

For up to date contact details and procedures, it is useful to contact us for a current Information Booklet.

I have recently moved to Cambridge from a different part of the country. Will I need to fill in a new body donation consent form?

Not necessarily. A consent form completed for one anatomy establishment might also be acceptable to another. However, information about our procedures and practice may differ and we would like to ensure that you that you receive this, so please contact us.

Can I donate my body if I am also on the NHS Organ Donor Register?

People who choose to donate their body or organs do so in the hope that they will be useful to others after their death. Anatomical examination and organ donation are administered separately and each process has separate, different consent forms. Despite being different donation systems, it is possible for a person to be registered as an organ donor and to have registered their wish to donate their body, after death, to a medical school.

Cambridge will have to decline a body donation if the person has undergone surgery to remove organs for transplantation. However, if after their death, the person is found unsuitable to be an organ donor, and they have also completed forms for anatomical examination, body donation to a medical school can be taken forward by the relatives, solicitor or executor of the Will.

Donation of corneas does not exclude body donation and many of our donors choose to do this.

If I donate my body, will there be a funeral or memorial service?

A Committal Service (combined funeral service) is held within the department prior to the cremation or burial of the donor, this is attended by the staff and students who have been taught by the donor in that year. Unfortunately for reasons such as space and access restrictions imposed by our governing body, the Human Tissue Authority, we cannot allow members of the public to attend. However we can provide next of kin/executors with a transcript of the service and copies of the individual tributes that each group of students write for their particular donor.

If donors do not wish to be part of the Committal Service, we can accommodate this.

Relatives and friends are invited to join us at a Memorial Service held in King's College Chapel, Cambridge every other year.

Are there any costs or payments involved?

Due to funding restrictions we can only completely meet the costs of transporting a donor to this facility, up to a 40 mile radius. As we can pay for an 80 mile round trip, the mileage over and above this (for donors who are collected outside of this 40 mile radius) has to be met by the Estate or family.

If the death occurs at home, or where there are no mortuary facilities, we ask that the family arrange for the body to be taken to a Chapel of Rest where there are appropriate storage facilities. The cost of this collection and storage will be borne by the family or Estate of the deceased. If someone dies in hospital, however, their body is automatically taken to the mortuary; therefore there will be no such costs.

If the family would like to collect the ashes of the donor, there is a small administrative charge for this.

The Department pays for all costs associated with either the cremation or burial of a donor.

Is there an age limit?

We do not accept donors under the age of 18, but there is no upper age limit. To date our eldest donor was 104!

Are there any conditions which mean that my body will not be accepted?

We cannot accept the donation if the donor is required to undergo post-mortem examination, has had recent surgery, carries a transmissible infection, has a condition which has substantially altered normal anatomy, or if the period of time between death and our acceptance exceeds 6 days. Some conditions depend upon their severity at the time of death, and for this reason we contact the medical practitioners who have been attending the donor at this point.

I have had my tonsils/appendix/breast removed/ my hip/knee/shoulder replaced – would you take my donation?

Absolutely! We hope that our donors lead long, happy lives before they join us and we are practical about a certain amount of 'wear and tear'. Our students treat donors as their first patient, so any previous operations, scars or pathology are something that they can learn from.

Can I donate my body if I live overseas?

The process of repatriating a body is complex and the amount of time and processes involved mean that we would unfortunately have to decline the donation. A brief outline of the procedure is given below.

To bring a body back to England or Wales, you will need to get in touch with an international funeral director. British Consular staff can help you to arrange this.

Before the body can be brought home, it must be embalmed and placed in a zinc-lined coffin. The process may take some time to organise, especially if a post-mortem examination is required.

You will also need the following documents:

  • A certified English translation of the foreign death certificate from the country in which the person died
  • Authorisation to remove the deceased's body from the country
  • A certificate of embalming

What happens if my body is not accepted?

The body is available for a funeral and we advise that you consider this possibility with loved ones at the time of completing donation forms, perhaps indicating any wishes in this regard; note that you are not obliged to hold a funeral service. You may also like to consider alternative forms of donation such as giving tissue to the Cambridge Brain Bank; in this instance, the body remains available for a funeral.

If I have been granted "power of attorney" over someone's affairs, can I give my consent for the donation of their body?

No. Consent must come from the donor themselves irrespective of "power of attorney" – this relates to decision-making for health-related or financial issues, not anatomical donation.