They donate their most precious possession to science: a growing number of people are willing to donate their bodies after death for anatomy teaching purposes. Working with corpses is an indispensable component of their training, especially for doctors - in order to later be able to diagnose diseases and causes of death, and to be able to carry out operations and other treatments. Universities are therefore grateful for body donations - but in many places the number of people willing to donate exceeds the capacities.
The anatomy department at the Justus Liebig University (JLU) in Giessen, for example, has been receiving far more such offers than it can accept for some time now. Around 25 to 40 body donations are needed there per year - with a three-digit number of inquiries and almost 2100 registered. In most cases, the reason given by interested parties is to do science and want to support the next generation of doctors in their training, says Christina Nassenstein, head of the prosecutor at the JLU Institute of Anatomy and Cell Biology.
It is similar in the anatomy department of the Mainz University Medicine. She records around 100 potential body donors per year - for 2023 this number had already been reached in mid-February, says the head of the prosecutor's office at Mainz University Medicine, Sven Schumann. "Unfortunately, we have to put off many interested parties because the willingness to donate is so high." In principle, however, one is happy about everyone who gets in touch: The human body in all its diversity can best be understood in this way.
Also ethical insights
In addition: "The textbook anatomy is the anatomy of the young body", much is presented in an idealized way - but with age many details changed, which illustrates the work on the body donations. In addition, the students could learn practical, collaborative and careful work and also gain ethical insights into the profession, says Schumann.
When the work on the dead in the anatomy department is finished, they are buried - in Giessen, an urn field has been specially reserved for this in the New Cemetery. Once a year, a funeral service and burial takes place there, attended by relatives as well as students and lecturers from the university, including recently the two medical students Vanessa Thiemann and Helene Helm. They feel respect and gratitude for the dead and also "a kind of bond," says Helm. It is therefore important to them that the body donors receive a dignified burial.
respect for the dead
Nassenstein also emphasizes that the dead are not only seen as objects of study and observation, but also as people. During the anatomical training, which lasted several months, one does not only think about what they died of, but also how they lived, what personality they had. About 18 students work on a cadaver during their time in anatomy. Her dealings with the dead are respectful and reverent, the working atmosphere is concentrated. But there is no "grave mood," says the specialist in anatomy. "Sometimes there is laughter in the preparation room."
For the relatives, the burial is a second farewell, a long time after the death of their loved one: the corpses usually remain in the anatomy department for two to three years because the preservation of the tissue and the studies take the corresponding time. This can be stressful for relatives and occasionally a reason why those willing to donate withdraw their consent, as Nassenstein says. But that doesn't happen often.
Contribute after death
As early as the 1990s, Betina Schöber decided to leave her body to the Gießen anatomy department after her death. Due to the early death of her husband, but also because of her job as a geriatric nurse and nurse, she dealt with the topic and finally registered. Her aunt, her father and her sister went the same way.
In some circles of acquaintances, this was met with horror, which the 65-year-old cannot understand. "Everyone takes it for granted that there is a well-trained doctor on site" - but how he gets his knowledge is not questioned. She is happy if she can contribute something after her death and also doesn't share the idea of many people that in anatomy "corpses come into the basement to be chopped up". On the contrary: she experienced the way the university staff accompanied and treated her aunt and father as extremely empathetic and respectful. And the aunt's burial could not have been more dignified, which strengthened her decision.
costs are regulated differently
Nassenstein does not want to advertise body donations - that is not necessary in view of the numerous requests. On its homepage, the JLU makes it clear that body donations are not remunerated - for ethical, moral, legal and organizational reasons. However, the university assumes, among other things, the costs for the later cremation, for the urn and for the burial, similar to the anatomy department of the Mainz University Medical Center.
The university medicine department of the Berlin Charité, in turn, charges a flat fee to cover the funeral expenses, as does the anatomy department of the University of Cologne. One does not see oneself in a position to bear the costs alone. Therefore, according to an information sheet, "a subsidy of currently 1,100 euros must be paid in advance by the body donors for the funeral costs incurred," it says in Cologne. The amount covers all costs directly incurred in the future in the event of death - "including future price increases".