I know that death isn’t something that many people talk about openly. It makes us uncomfortable, and I really don’t understand why the western world is so challenged by mortality.
We’ll talk about fictional deaths—beloved characters in books or TV shows. We’ll talk about political, religious, and/or societal deaths—murders, mass traumas, cover-ups, and so on. We have a deep curiosity with morbidity. How else do you explain the 16 different versions of CSI or the popularity of serial killers in podcasts and documentaries? But when it comes to our own death, that’s rarely discussed.
I don’t particularly enjoy thinking about dying. But I’m a chronic planner, so why wouldn’t I try to Type-A my own death?
I’ve already given a lot of thought about what will happen to my body after I die. After-death planning seems somewhat easier than giving thought to the dying process itself. I recently found myself in a discussion about this very topic with a friend. We were talking about the various ways we didn’t want to die. She later told me about a conversation she had with a friend who described her “ideal death”.
I couldn’t get past that phrasing. My ideal death. It’s not something you hear very often. But it got me thinking about what my ideal death would be. Obviously, if I had it my way, I’d go peacefully in my sleep after every item on my bucket list was checked off, and my family and friends had the closure they needed in order to celebrate my life and not mourn my death.
The chances of that happening, however, are slim. Working at the morgue has made it painfully obvious that death comes when it wants to. It doesn’t care about your schedule. Didn’t change your underwear today? Finally got tickets to Hamilton? Death doesn’t give a fuck.
It’s random. It’s inconvenient. It’s painful as hell. Not necessarily for you (although maybe) but definitely for your loved ones. One thing death is not is spiteful. Just promoted? Well, you’re way too happy so obviously you have to die now. Nope. That’s not how death works. I don’t know how it works, but I like to think that we’re not being punished for being happy.
Death is not a punishment. It isn’t a consequence for doing something wrong or failing. Well, I suppose that’s arguable if the thing you’re doing is skydiving without a parachute. And, actually, death is punishment in the eyes of the justice system. So this post is riddled with lies and contradictions. I know nothing. Except that we’re all going to die. Spoiler alert.
Anyway, going back to that earlier conversation with a friend about ideal deaths. Working in a morgue, I’ve been exposed to a lot of different ways to die. Burned. Crushed. Shot. Run over. Stabbed. Bludgeoned. Overdosed. Hung. Froze. Drowned. Decapitated. Suffocated. Jumped. Fell. The list goes on. But the fact of the matter is, we don’t get to choose how we die.
That’s just off the top of my head! I think we all need to practice using the words “death,” “dying,” “died,” and “dead”. I’m not trying to push mortality on you, but I think it’d help ease us into being more comfortable talking about it if we can actually say the words. End tangent.
Anyway. Ideal death. In the event that I don’t get my wish and I don’t die peacefully in my sleep, I have one request: Please, please, please don’t let me die on the toilet.
I’ve had about a dozen cases since starting in the morgue that involved toilet deaths. They’re more common than I thought. They’re not pleasant for anyone involved. And hey, everybody poops. That’s not the issue here. I’d like to die with some dignity and not with my pants around my ankles.
The nature in which you die almost seems to validate your death. At the very least it has some influence over how people respond to your death. Died saving someone? Died in the line of duty? Died due to a freak accident? I guarantee it’ll help soften the blow. “She died doing what she loves.” “She died so another could live.” “They lived a long life.” “They’re with *insert loved one’s name here* now.”
Die while on the toilet? There’s nothing noble or heroic about a toilet death. No one says that you died doing what you loved. I promise you that every person, upon finding out someone they know died on a toilet, thinks “ew”. Then they’ll picture it. They won’t want to, but inevitably it’ll come. And for a moment, they’re embarrassed for you.
No thank you.
Thinking about toilet deaths has made me more aware of how much time I spend in the bathroom. Thanks to smartphones, number twos take longer than they use to. IF we were to add up all the time we spend on the toilet, I think we’d find that death has ample opportunity to strike us down.
“A donated organ can save a life, but a body provides the foundation to save many more.”
In 2009, my mom and I went to see Body Worlds, a traveling exhibit of dissected human bodies preserved through plastination. I had seen it before, but it’s always better to experience these things with another person. I wanted her to see why I was in such awe of the human body. I left the museum that day having made three decisions: my mom is a good sport, $30 for a organ donor t-shirt was totally worth it, and I am donating my body.
Up until that day, I hadn’t given much thought to what would happen to my body after I died. Do I want to be buried? Cremated? Shot into space? To be honest, none of that crossed my mind. I was 25 and invincible. But after walking through the Body Worlds exhibit for the second time, I knew that a coffin six feet under ground wasn’t for me. My atoms crave fame. (Not really. They crave caffeine.)
Before leaving the exhibit, I used one of the computers there to sign up as a donator. Instead of donating my money, however, I opted to donate my body. It was almost too easy, and part of me believed that I had just sent one of those “wish you were here” museum postcards to a family member. But weeks later I received confirmation in the mail—I even got a fancy ID card to carry with me so people know what to do with my body when I die.
Side note: To be fair, it wasn’t just Body Worlds that had led me down this path. By this point in my life, I had attended several cadaver labs and read “Stiff” by Mary Roach. This book opened my eyes to not only the need for cadavers, but the very important purpose they serve in a number of research capacities. It’s a fascinating book, and she’s a brilliant author. I recommend reading it.
Nearly 10 years later, I haven’t changed my mind. My body will be donated when I die. What has changed is who I am donating it to. While the Body Worlds exhibit is enlightening, there isn’t much need for bodies to be plastinated and put on display. While it serves an educational purpose, it’s self-serving. What is needed, however, are bodies for medical students, anthropologists, ballistics experts, and first-responders.
In 2016, National Geographic reported that the demand for cadavers is up, but the supply is down. The Anatomical Gift Association of Illinois reported that annual donations fell from 760 in 1984 to 520 in 2015. This was disheartening to read because body donation is such a wonderful gift. There are more than 20,000 enrolled first-year medical students, and for them, anatomy class is a rite of passage. With about six students assigned to one body, it really limits the amount of hands-on learning future doctors have.
According to NatGeo, in 2008, Colorado and Wyoming were 20 bodies short of the 158 cadavers requested by the states’ medical schools. And with physician assistant and nurse practitioner programs now utilizing cadavers, in addition to vocations outside of medical school, the supply is even more strained.
“There are more than 120 million registered organ donors in the United States, and an average of 79 people receive transplants each day, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The federal government does not monitor whole body donations in the United States, but researchers estimate each year fewer than 20,000 Americans donate their bodies to medical research and training.”
This doesn’t sit right with me. I have gained so much knowledge from the generosity of body donors, and I’m not even in medical school. I don’t know what happens when we die, but I can’t imagine that I’d rest easily knowing that I opted to keep my body in a box instead of helping future medical professionals better understand anatomy, physiology, and pathology.
Now I’m not here to tell you what to do with your body. It’s yours. But I do hope that maybe I can answer some questions for you in the event that you’re considering body donation.
What is body donation?
Simply put, body donation is the donation of a whole body after death for education and research. Donated bodies are primarily used for medical education and research, but cadavers have helped industries outside of medicine, including NASA and car manufacturers.
What will happen to my body?
That all depends on where you donate your body. In medical settings, donated bodies are mostly used for gross anatomy and surgical anatomy. In 2015, Vice published an in-depth article about what happens to your body after it’s been donated. I recommend checking it out. But to be blunt, you will be dissected. Remember that fetal pig in high school biology? More than likely, though, you’ll be treated with much more respect than that pig.
Your body will be embalmed, which means your blood and other bodily fluids are replaced with chemical preservers. This makes it so your body will last instead of decompose. Side note: read my previous post all about decomposition.
In my personal experience with cadavers, I’ve worked with whole bodies and well as parts, such as arms and legs. I have seen skulls cut open to reveal the hollow space where the brain once sat. I have also seen heads split in half down the middle to reveal the inner workings of the nasal and pharyngeal areas. I have been the person doing the dissecting, and I’ve also been the person who observes the body post-dissection. It all depends on the class you’re taking and career path you’re heading down.
If you’re looking for a moving first-hand account of a cadaver lab, I recommend reading “Body of Work” by Christine Montross.
How can I donate my body?
There are several ways to do it. First and foremost, you can opt to be an organ donor. This is much more common than whole body donation. Working at the morgue, I receive a lot of Gift of Hope patients. These are bodies that have already had their corneas, organs, long bones, and even some skin removed.
My next recommendation is to check with your state to see if they have a formal organization. Illinois, where I am located, has the Anatomical Gift Association. It receives, prepares, preservers, and distributes donated human remains to medical education and research institutions across Illinois.
You might also consider research facilities like a “body farm”. The most notable one, at least in my opinion, is located at the University of Tennessee. It was founded in 1981 and has been used to study human decomposition. Similar projects have followed at Western Carolina University, Texas State University, Sam Houston State University, Southern Illinois University, and Colorado Mesa University. All six are, or at least at one point, accepted human donations. If you like podcasts, here’s a great one about body farms from the guys at Stuff You Should Know.
What happens to my body when they’re done?
That’s a great question. In my research, I’ve read that most places hold a type of memorial service or ceremony. Certain institutions will invite family members, while others prefer to limit it to the students and faculty that worked with the cadavers. It’s a great way to show respect and gratitude for the generous gift. Bodies are then cremated, and their remains are returned to their families.
So there you have it. It’s a very quick overview of body donation. If you are considering it, I encourage you to research further. Like me, you might change your mind about where you’d like your body to go or what you’d like it used for. It’s an important decision, and one that shouldn’t be made impulsively. That said, it’s truly a wonderful gift and one that I am extremely proud to give.
School leaves me with very little free time, but somehow I managed to find just enough of it to pick up a new hobby: woodworking.
It all began over Christmas break. I learned how to use a laser cutter, and before I knew it I was hooked. Drawing from my love for all things science, I started cutting anatomy-related objects out of wood. As it turned out, enough people liked what I was doing and now I have an Etsy store with an entire line of anatomy-themed keychains.
I’m learning a lot more about wood. So far my favorite is this beautiful red wood called padauk. It’s perfect for making anatomical hearts!
And, of course, I had to make some space-related items too.
Most recently, I added some radiology-themed items to the shop.
I love making them. If they make others happy too, great!
One of the unique things about my school is that clinical experience is interwoven into the entire program. My clinical rotation started the second week of the first semester, rather than being introduced later into the program. We started out with two eight-hour days in the radiology department and three inside the classroom. That lasted for two semesters. Now that I’m in my third, we’ve upgraded to three clinical days and only two classroom days. While that means a lot more experience for me, it also means that I’m on my feet a lot more.
There isn’t a lot of down time when you’re juggling outpatients, inpatients, ER patients, and fluoroscopy exams. At the end of the day my feet were less than pleased—specifically my heels. But it wasn’t until my two-week surgery rotation that I realized the shoes I was wearing weren’t cut out for the demands I was putting on them. The pain from my feet started radiated up to my knees and lower back. In surgery, radiographic technologists usually stand in the operating room until the surgeon needs an x-ray. There isn’t always a place to sit, and as a student I usually let the lead tech enjoy that luxury if it’s available.
There were times when I wanted to excuse myself from the OR just to go stretch or sit for a moment, but I didn’t want to miss out on anything important or seem unprofessional. Seriously, if a nurse or a surgeon can stand for the operation, so can I. But they had better shoes! As a student, we have to wear white leather shoes, which really limits our choices when out shopping. Trust me, I would much rather wear my running shoes. So at the end of my surgical rotation I set out to find a new pair of clinical-appropriate shoes.
I had bookmarked these Timberland PRO Women’s Renova Professional Slip-on shoes a while back. The price tag just didn’t meet my student-friendly budget. But I was desperate. I talked with friends and classmates and they all told me that splurging on shoes, especially since I’m on my feet so often, is totally worth it. So I did. And I wish I had done it sooner.
The breaking in process was a little annoying. While my heels didn’t hurt as much after a full day at the hospital, my ankles were sore from the sides of the shoes rubbing against them. This has subsided a lot after a few weeks of wear, but it’s something to consider. I recommend breaking them in at home before taking them out for a full shift. They do squeak a little when I walk, but it’s a small price to pay for comfort. Other than that, I’ve been very happy with my purchase. They’re non-slip, breathable, and easy to clean.
If you’re a healthcare professional in need of a change, I definitely recommend Timberland PROs. Yes, spending $120 on work shoes might seem like a lot of money, but it’s well worth it. Foot health is important, and if you’re a student, you’ve got a lot more long days ahead of you! Be kind to your feet.
Side note: The company didn’t ask me to review the shoes, so all opinions are my own.