Patricia Kelly had to watch her husband, William, descend into dementia, but he never wavered from a desire to give his body to science, and what followed his donation inspired her — and now their daughter — to not only pledge to do the same but to become fierce advocates of the idea.
When William Kelly died in 2011 and Patricia Kelly in 2015, they became part of an unusual program at the Indiana University Northwest in Gary, which teaches anatomy while encouraging communication with donor families through letters, visits and a memorial service.
Her mom cherished the letters she received from International Human Cadaver Prosection Program students, said daughter Susan Ellingsen, of Munster, Ind., “taking a big magnifying glass (she was legally blind) and reading them over and over. They were very personal and told us all they discovered about my dad.”
“My mother made a video to let students know why she donated her body and what hope she had for them to be the best they could be and to always take their patients’ lives and families seriously,” she said.
Ernest Talarico, who runs the prosection program, said he was troubled in medical school when all he knew about a cadaver was a number and maybe a cause of death. Fellow students disrespectfully named bodies, he said.
“The tradition in anatomy lab is to focus on the science, not to get too attached,” Talarico said. “What we do is a new paradigm. And research shows it makes better doctors.”
Many bodies donated for research have poignant back stories. William Kelly had a number of ailments and wanted science to more fully explore them.
Judy Clemens, of Hebron, Ind., had a progressive form of multiple sclerosis that so frustrated her that she took her life, but not before asking that her body be studied to better understand the disease.
Other donors are educators, scientists and members of law enforcement who know the importance of hands-on learning to solve crimes, find missing people or bodies, and bring closure to aggrieved families. They even designate that their corpses be used for such studies as how fast vultures decimate a body, or how cold or hot weather affects decomposition. Still others specify that their remains be used to train cadaver dogs.
Some bodies are donated by families seeking to save money since many programs pay for transportation and stage a memorial service for the deceased or return the cremated remains.
A future purpose for donated bodies involves recomposition, the turning of human bodies into nutrient-rich compost. A prototype for what the project director sees as an environmentally friendly alternative to burial and cremation is expected to be built in Seattle in the spring and will accept bodies for a pilot program to fully test the process.
“There’s scientific value to donating your body, but there’s a huge educational value,” said Cheryl Johnston, director of an outdoor facility at Western Carolina University, where eight bodies are in various stages of decomposition. The training they afford “is benefiting people by applying things in the real world.”
Daniel Wescott runs the largest so-called body farm in the country at Texas State University, where researchers and cameras document the rate of decay of 70 bodies above and below ground, bodies clothed, unclothed and wrapped in tarps, bodies protected by wire cages and bodies left vulnerable to scavengers. When reduced to skeletons, the bones become part of a permanent research collection.
The Forensic Anthropology Center simulates conditions under which bodies or people may be found if they are victims of crime, or are missing after wandering off or a natural disaster, such as a flood. A decomposed body produces soil that’s darker in color and vegetation that reflects light differently, allowing a drone to pinpoint a location to be searched. That saves time and money, Wescott said, and then experts can determine how long a body might have been there, leading to quicker identification and finding or eliminating suspects in criminal cases.
“It’s all for justice, not just for law enforcement, but to keep somebody from going to jail if innocent,” he said.
Decomposition research and technology have better prepared Texas to handle the border-crossing deaths of immigrants, Wescott said. Bodies are buried without names, leaving loved ones uncertain as to the refugees’ fate. The facility is trying to identify some 80 corpses, but “the very, very slow process” has led to only 10 names so far, he said.
Donated bodies also help train dogs that can detect human remains. Lisa Briggs, a professor of criminology at Western Carolina University, started training her golden retriever Laila at 7 1/2 weeks, and the 2-year-old has found three bodies and several people alive.
Briggs said she feels fortunate to have whole bodies with which to teach Laila because using synthetic versions of decomposed remains or even a single body part such as teeth or a placenta, as some trainers have to do, is inadequate.
“Drug dogs are trained on one scent — maybe marijuana — but with humans, there are so many variables, such as what they had on, whether it was cold or hot, medicines they were taking, if they drowned,” Briggs said. “No one can understand how important it is” for dogs to be exposed to all those factors.
She said she remembers an instance in which Laila was looking for two people presumed by police to be dead. The dog found the bodies in water by smelling the gases bubbling to the surface, Briggs said, adding she can be asked to help on up to 20 cases a year.
She’s seen the pain families go through when a loved one is missing. “I can only imagine what it’s like not knowing,” she said.
Brittany Winn said she knew her adopted “nana,” Clemens, was donating her body to Indiana University Northwest in hopes that something could be learned about multiple sclerosis. But Winn was unprepared for Clemens’ suicide in 2011 and the quick disappearance of her body.
“We didn’t know where her remains were. It was heart-wrenching for us,” Winn said.
Months later, a Manila envelope arrived from Talarico’s program, and his students’ first contacts with the family “had us in tears,” said Winn, who has gone on to participate in the program for four years as a student and team leader and is working as a medical scribe for a Fort Wayne, Ind., endocrinologist. She wants prosectors to understand the donor and those closest to him or her.
“It’s not just a cadaver but a person who meant the world to my family,” Winn said. “Words from the prosectors are the beginning of closure. And seeing that they get everything they can from the program makes me feel better. What they learned will be with them for life.”
She has registered as a donor, she said, but donations also can be arranged after death. Requirements vary, but programs generally will not take the bodies of severe accident victims, those with infectious diseases or bodies that have been autopsied, embalmed or had organs removed. Some have weight limitations; some will take cremated remains and body parts, such as amputated limbs.
Katrina Spade, founder and executive director of the Seattle-based Urban Death Project, started searching as an architecture student for a new way to look at death, out of concern that the existing options of burial and cremation are expensive, harmful to the environment and often shortchange traditional rituals surrounding a death. She realized the method used to compost dead livestock could be adapted for humans.
“All of nature is based on dead material being turned into new life,” Spade said. “It’s a renewal, but we’ve destroyed it through cremation or by pumping bodies full of chemicals and burying them in concrete boxes. It couldn’t be farther from what nature wants to do.”
She envisions nonprofit recomposition facilities being built in urban areas where land is scarce and there are unused structures such as churches or warehouses. Bodies could be carried by family members in a quiet candlelit ceremony or to the accompaniment of a brass band, she said, and then covered in wood chips to begin the transformation into soil.
“It’s a really beautiful way to treat bodies after death,” Spade said.
Kay Manning is a freelancer.