Commonly Asked Questions

Our Criteria for acceptance requires proof of COVID vaccination and boosters, OR a negative COVID test within 3-5 days of death or post-mortem; and no recent exposure. This may change at any time.   Updated June 6, 2022.


Overview, Criteria and Procedure for Anatomical Body Donation to Duke School of Medicine

 

silhouette of the Renaissance man, also called Universal Man or Uomo Universale

Thank you for your interest.

We appreciate your request for information about donating your body, or that of a loved one, for use by medical science through The Duke Anatomical Gifts Program. The program is a service of the Department of Medical Education at the Duke University School of Medicine.

All of the members of The Duke Anatomical Gifts Program are committed to working closely with donor families to ensure that each donation proceeds smoothly, that the donation is accepted in a thoughtful and respectful manner, and that the wishes of the departed and his or her family are honored whenever possible.

This section of our site was created to answer questions you might have about the program and about the procedures that are followed to make a donation. If you have questions that are not answered here or in the Overview, Criteria and Procedure for Anatomical Body Donation to Duke School of Medicine, please call us at (919) 681-5471 between 8:30 a.m. and 4:30 p.m., Monday through Friday.

These guidelines are established for the safety of our staff, students, educators, and the body’s suitability for teaching.  Criteria may be amended due to specific medical courses and lab capacity.  We do assess each individual, close to, and at the time of death, taking into account many factors.

  • We do our best to receive the body within 3 days of death.
  • Donors must be 18 or over.  There is no age limit over 18.
  • General Height: Under 6’ 4” in height.
  • General Weight: must be height and weight proportional; BMI under 27-28, but not skeletal. Women between 100 and 180 lbs; and men between 100 and 200 lbs.
    Slight exemptions to both height and weight may be made on a case-by-case basis, taking into account height/weight proportion, BMI and specific studies/courses happening at the time.  Our facility cannot accommodate weights over 200 lbs.
  • The body must be free of infections, blood diseases and contaminants including, but not limited to:
    • Any history of Hepatitis A through E (even if it was deemed “cured”)
    • Active staph infections, MRSA, VRSA, VRE; E.coli; Clostridium Difficile (C. Diff)
    • Creutzfeldt-Jakob, HIV, AIDS, Fungus Candida Auris, Klebsiella 
    • Active tuberculosis, meningitis, encephalitis, Noro Virus, Corona Virus 
      (Please note, we will need verification that any donor is free of COVID-19 and no prior infection for 90 days, or fully vaccinated and  updated boosters against COVID-19.)
    • Sepsis(blood poisoning)
    • Severe jaundice 
    • Open wounds, skin ulceration, large bed sores, unhealed deep incisions, gangrene (exceptions are possible, based on current condition of the wounds and/or current course needs)
    • Ascites or any significant abdominal bloating/fluids
    • Recent (within 6 months) radioactive implants 
  • Other situations under which we cannot accept a body:
    • A body that was in medical isolation
    • Drowning, submergence in water at death
    • Severe burns, severe trauma
    • Recent, unhealed, invasive surgery wounds
    • Significant edema in the head and facial area
    • The body must not have undergone any internal exploratory autopsy or tissue removal (biopsies) without prior approval of our team.
      • We can, in special circumstances, work with donors who are involved in other Duke research in pre-arranged cases, when doctors request to remove tissue, if performed in Duke University Hospital Pathology Lab, or through pre-approval in coordination with another pathology lab.
    • We are open to receiving bodies when brain donation is planned, if pre-arranged with us and coordinated; we do not harvest brains in our facility. Duke does not currently have an active brain bank.     
    • Post death amputations or donation of an organ after death. Eye/cornea donation is accepted. For eye donation contact Miracles in Sight: MiraclesinSight.org.
    • We generally do not accept embalmed bodies, with the exception of circumstances when we have pre-approved and are working with a funeral home with a pre-arterial embalming if the family requires a funeral – but this requires pre-planning and close coordination. 

No. Such a report would require an autopsy. Bodies donated to the program are used for teaching about the structure of the body.

No.  If the correct people are involved to sign on the donor’s behalf, and there is no evidence that the donor is opposed to body donation, and the family are all in agreement with the choice, Duke may be able to accept your body without this card. The card simply serves to alert family and health care providers the intent to donate your body to The Anatomical Gifts Program.  Any health care directives and the will must either indicate body donation for science/education/medical study is a preference, or that Next of Kin or agent with health care power of attorney are granted the choice to make such decisions about the disposition of remains after death.

Yes, there is no obligation, at any time, for the donor to follow through with the “intent to donate” to Duke Anatomical Gifts.  You do not need to contact us to “take you off a list” because we do not start files on potential donors until we are contacted close to the end of life or at the time of death. 

The majority of the bodies that are donated to us are used for teaching anatomy (body structure) to medical students. Surgical residents and physicians use cadavers to review anatomy in detail or to develop new surgical procedures. Bodies are rarely used for research. In every case, The Anatomical Gifts Program retains responsibility for the respectful use and maintenance of the body.

No. Acceptance depends chiefly upon whether the body will be suitable as a teaching model. The Anatomical Gifts Program has the right to decline a body that it feels is unsuitable for its use.

Yes. Stating on the donor card that your preferred school is Duke expresses a preference for Duke, but does not make it exclusive.  This website lists programs in different states.  Each program has their own criteria and process for acceptance.   https://anatbd.acb.med.ufl.edu/usprograms/

Yes, if it is possible to receive the body within the time frame of 3 days, and the family pays all costs.  Exceptions may occur, as in quarantine and pandemics.

We encourage family to reach out to us if the donor is in hospice or in a hospital or prior to the end of life, so we can speak to medical professionals and to make a pre-assessment of eligibility and update with any changes in the program.  Please call us, if possible, during normal working hours (Monday through Friday, 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., at (919) 681-5471.  

If you are calling at the time of death, the program should be notified as soon as possible. If the death occurs day or night, from please contact The Anatomical Gifts Program person on call at 919-812-7430.  Our program is closed over the weekend and holidays.  If the death occurs when we are closed, the donor will need to be held in cold storage until we are open and able to reach the medical professionals working with the donor prior to death.

We ask for families to involve a funeral home of their preference that provides cold storage in the event the death occurs in the evening or on a weekend. The funeral home should hold the body until a family member can call us so that our staff can assess if we are able to accept the body donation. If we are not able to accept the body, the family can proceed with arrangements with the funeral home.

  1. A program staff member will start the process to determine whether the gift is acceptable by asking a few questions about the cause of death and the condition of the body.
  2. The family will need to provide contact information for the medical professionals working with the potential donor around the time of death, and/or their primary doctor so they can confirm information about medical criteria for donation.  The family may need to inform the medical professionals that the family or health care power of attorney gives their consent for our program to speak with them.
  3. Proof of COVID vaccination, booster and or a negative COVID test within 3 days of death will need to be faxed to us at 919-681-5520. 
  4. If the body meets criteria, the department will request that the original donor card is faxed to 919-681-5520.  If there is no donor card, staff will assess what documentation they need faxed to us.  That could include any Health Care Directives, Health Care Power of Attorney Documents, or a will.
  5. If all documentation is approved, and there is no valid donor card, a signed and witnessed consent form will be sent by fax, and must be completed by the next of kin or designated healthcare power of attorney, and faxed back to the department.  The original, signed consent form must also be mailed to the department.
  6. The family or estate of the donor is asked to arrange and pay for transportation to Duke University Medical Center – this can be arranged with a funeral home or transport service. If the donation must wait until the facility is open, a funeral service with cold storage may be necessary to hold the body for that time. If this cost is a hardship, please contact Duke as early as possible as we may be able to assist with some of the cost.
  7. The transportation service/funeral home selected must call the department to coordinate the paperwork and arrival time.  The service chosen must also file the death certificate.

When we accept a body, we will also need a copy of the death certificate signed by the physician with all information complete.   Our program does not file death certificates. The death certificate is usually facilitated by the funeral home or transport service that brings the body to our facility.  We do not need a certified copy. 

The program encourages a funeral if the family wishes.  Because of our unique needs regarding the condition of the body, we require a special embalming process.  The funeral home must contact our director for specific instructions before doing any embalming.

When the cause of death is unclear, an autopsy may make an important contribution to medical science or law enforcement. The choice between permitting the autopsy and donating the body to the program must be made by the family.  If the Medical Examiner’s office requires a full autopsy, then the family may not have a choice.  The decision to permit an autopsy will not be opposed by the program, but we cannot then accept the body. 

There are exceptions:

  • If it is an external-only autopsy, if timing permits, we can often still accept the body.
  • If it is a Duke physician who wishes only to take a small bit of tissue that doesn’t compromise the body, we sometimes can coordinate and still accept the body, but the body must go through Decedent Care at Duke University Hospital.  Timing and course needs determine our ability to accept the body in such a case.

Upon completion of the study, we cremate the remains. The cremated remains may be returned at the family's request to the family or to a funeral home. The family may also request that the program make respectful disposition of the remains. There is no charge for the cremation or the mailing.

No. Organ donation and body donation are totally separate programs with very different goals and different requirements. We encourage people to be organ donors, but that does rule out being a whole-body donor. Many of our donors are people who, for one reason or another, were not suitable candidates for organ donation, or prefer to donate for medical educaton.

  • Eyes may be donated by whole-body donors. For information on the donation of eyes, contact The North Carolina Eye Bank, Inc., 888-552-9956.
  • In some cases, if all other criteria fit, and there is a compatible, upcoming course for the specific donor, we can accept a body from a donor who wants to donate their brain.  We do not facilitate the brain harvest or donation.  That must be done by the organization accepting the brain.  Prior arrangements must be made, with our program and the brain donation organization. It takes significant coordination and exact timing. 

Duke does not pay for bodies, nor does any other medical school. 

Next Step:

If you would like to donate, please get a Donor Card, which is included in our Information packet with our printable donor card and helpful forms

Please note, do not return any of the cards or forms to us.  Please read the cover letter for directions.

For Duke, there is no registration or paperwork to complete at this time. This process does not start until the death occurs.  Please do not mail the donor cards back to us.

If you would like us to mail you a Uniform Donor Card and an instruction sheet, or if you have more questions, please contact us:

Gwendolyn Keith
Program Coordinator
Duke Anatomical Gifts Program
Department of Medical Education
Box 3952
Duke University Medical Center
Durham, NC 27710
Phone: 919-681-5471   
Fax: 919-681-5520   
Email: gwendolyn.keithwellstone@duke.edu

We encourage you to check with The Anatomical Gifts Program every two years to see if any changes have been made to the process to ensure your donation can be completed in a respectful, efficient manner.