Body donors benefit future generations

Priscilla D. Tasker

Before a person dies, he or she has a choice to make concerning the disposition of his or her remains. Some choose to have a traditional burial and some choose to be cremated.

Others choose to donate their bodies to future and practicing doctors.

Richard P. Ripley was the first person to donate his body to Northeastern Ohio Universities College of Medicine when it first opened in 1978. He was the only person to donate his body that year, but since then, the school has received 1,086 bodies, said Diana Dillon, program secretary at the department of anatomy.

“Currently, we have about 1,500 active donors,” said Dr. Steve Ward, department of anatomy chairman, “Some people have been on the registry for 25 years.”

David Hammes, 70, senior guest student at Kent State, has been registered as a donor at NEOUCOM since May 2005. His upbringing led him to believe that “the American way of death is all a facade,” Hammes said. His father ran a funeral home, which the family lived above. He was exposed to death at an early age, and saw it on a weekly basis, he said.

“Funerals are a service for the living. Once you’re dead, you’re dead; I can tell you that,” Hammes said, “There are better uses for a body than embalming it and putting it in the ground when someone can learn.”

NEOUCOM receives about 45 to 55 bodies a year, Ward said. Twenty-eight of the cadavers are dissected by first year medical students to give them hands-on experience learning human body structure during a 13-week anatomy course. Two bodies — one male, one female — are used as reference-cadavers for the class. Some bodies are distributed to other schools and hospitals in NEOUCOM’s consortium. The hospitals use the cadavers for surgical research, Ward said.

“The knowledge the medical students derive from the donor is lifelong, and they really appreciate it,” Ward said.

A tombstone commemorating donors rests at Homeland Cemetery in Rootstown engraved with the epitaph “They Gave in Death for Those in Life.” About five years ago, NEOUCOM also installed a large plaque at its campus that lists the names of the donors and the year their gift was received, Ward said.

“We used to have a generic plaque that said thanks to the donors, but we wanted to be more personal so that’s what we did” Ward said.

Each May, the medical school holds a multi-denominational memorial service put on by the students to honor donors. Families are invited out, and at that time are given the remains of their loved one if it is requested. If not, the remains are buried at the Homeland Cemetery, Ward said.

About 400 people attended last year’s service, Ward said. This year the memorial service will be held May 21 at 1 p.m.

“Closure is often difficult for the family,” Ward said, “That’s why we do an annual memorial service.”

Donors are honored at the service the year their body was used, not the year the anatomical gift was received. Cadavers are used in the order they are received, Ward said. Families often have to wait a year or two before their loved one is memorialized, he said.

NEOUCOM suggests donors fully disclose their intentions of donating to family members to avoid shocking them, and to ensure that the family understands the process, Ward said.

If the family is not present when the donor dies, they might lose the opportunity to see him or her for the last time, Ward said. NEOUCOM’s body removal service is on-call 24 hours a day, and usually reaches the body within one hour of the call to collect, he said.

“If the family is not present we often get there before they do,” Ward said, “If the body is picked up from a hospital, the family often arrives to find an empty bed.”

The school will not accept a body if it has been embalmed, autopsied, or if the person has been dead longer than 10 hours, Ward said. To ensure the donor’s wishes are carried out, NEOUCOM must collect the body as soon as it can, he said.

Hammes had originally been a registered donor at a larger medical institution for about 12 years, he said. He did not name the institution. He tested its response time to the call of his death, but no one answered the phone.

“They did not follow through,” Hammes said, “I didn’t want to put my family through that.”

He chose to switch his donation to NEOUCOM after conferring with his doctor, he said.

“I think I donated my remains to a better institution,” Hammes said.

Hammes said his family was “all for his decision to donate,” and they are fully aware of the process. His 35-year-old son is also registered with NEOUCOM as a donor. He is devoted to his decision, he said.

“I am at the correct stage in life to donate,” Hammes said.

Hammes carries his donor identification card in his wallet and also wears a sports band that identifies him as such. Inscribed on the wrist band are the words “Do not autop or embalm.”

Hammes plans to have his remains buried at Homeland Cemetery, he said, but in the event that the school is unable to accept his body his plan is to be buried at the military cemetery in Rittman, Ohio.

Facts about body donation

  • Cost of donation process per body: approximately $1,200 (incurred by NEOUCOM)
  • Living donors: About 1,500
  • Donations accepted to date: 1,086
  • Oldest donor at time of receipt: 103 years old
  • Youngest: 32 years old


Contact health trends reporter Priscilla Tasker at [email protected].