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Featuring Scholarly Research, Writing, and Media at St. Mary's University
April 19, 2023

The Ethics of Donating Unclaimed Bodies to Science

Each year, around 20,000 people donate their bodies to science with the hope that they will contribute to anatomical advancements and learning.1 This donation is made of a willing, sane mind and body with witnesses usually needed to verify the paperwork filed. While every measure is taken to make sure that the person willingly provide consents for their own body to be used for research, the same procedures are not always extended to those that have already passed away and did not consent beforehand. A study showed that 14% of the medical schools surveyed in the United States reported using unclaimed bodies for teaching anatomy and dissections.2 While the use of unclaimed human remains was undoubtedly helpful in making advances in the study of anatomy and as a teaching tool, it is unethical due to the lack of consent, the socioeconomic discrimination behind it, and the lack of respect and dignity given to the individual in many cases.

Unclaimed bodies are bodies of individuals who did not have anyone able to claim or identify the body for burial proceedings. There are three ways in which a body can be left unclaimed: the individual’s relatives decide to not claim the body and leave the burial to the local authorities, the individual’s relatives are not able to afford burial proceedings and defer to the local authorities, or the individual is not able to be identified, making it impossible to contact the deceased’s relatives.3 Currently, there are no federal regulations regarding how to process unclaimed bodies, leaving the decision up to the state, and many times the specific county. Texas law states that county commissioners courts are to care for the unclaimed bodies in their jurisdiction.4 In Bexar county, for example, the costs for funeral processions for unclaimed bodies are handled with the Pauper Burial Assistance program.5 Other Texas counties have interpreted the Health and Safety Code to mean that donating unclaimed bodies to research institutes is allowed. As of 2021, Dallas county has offered 241 unclaimed bodies to its medical school, 62 of which were accepted to be used for educational purposes.6 For Dallas and many other counties that follow this example, donating unclaimed bodies to the counties’ partnering medical schools relieves a great amount of financial strain which would have instead gone to funding burial proceedings.

An Interrupted Dissection. A wood engraving of New York rioters trying to break their way into a doctor’s dissection area. (William Allen Rogers, public domain)

It is important to understand the history behind whole body donations and its link to unclaimed bodies to properly debate on ethics. The first bodies used for medical research and teachings in the United States were actually bodies from executed criminals in the eighteenth century (citation). Due to the fact that there was a high demand for bodies to dissect by students and so few criminal bodies available, school officials and students turned to acquiring deceased bodies by hiring “Resurrection Men” to grave rob the Black community’s cemeteries.7 While the Black community was in outrage of their graves being desecrated, there was no attention shed to the issue by the White majority until a white lady’s body was stolen from Trinity Churchland on February 21, 1778 in New York (citation). This theft led to the white population finally caring about what the medical school and hospitals were doing and started the “Doctor Riots” on April 16 of that same year, ending in the death of 20 or so people and destruction of the entirety of New York Hospital’s anatomical collection. It wasn’t until 1831 that the first anatomy act in the United States was passed in Massachusetts that legalized the use of bodies for dissection and anatomical study.8 In 1903, the Dallas Times Herald noted that “No provisions has been made by the Texas legislature for the supply of material and it is a penal offense in this state to use a dead body for these purposes” yet there were still occasional discoveries of black bodies thought to have originated from the Dallas Medical College within their city limits. By 1941, morticians that held pauper burial contracts in Texas were required to turn over unclaimed bodies for dissection as medical cadavers.9 In 1968 the Uniform Anatomical Gift act was federally passed, allowing for citizens to consent to whole body donation for the purpose of anatomical studies.10 This in turn made the social stigma of having your body used for dissectional instruction go from something that only happened in the middle of the night to those of low backgrounds, to being seen as a courageous and selfless act in order to help society..

One of the issues most prevalent with the topic of donating unclaimed bodies is the issue of consent. When a person is alive and willing to become a whole body donor, there is a notable amount of paperwork to sign along with many different medical programs in which you can partner with such as the Willed Body Program in Fort Worth’s University of North Texas Health Science Center.11 Most of the time, a person cannot even confirm their donation without needing two witnesses to sign with them. The question is, if a living person must follow all these guidelines and have their autonomy respected, why is the same respect not given to an unclaimed cadaver? With the Anatomical Gift act, after the individual has passed, near relatives and other relatives such as adult grandchildren and grandparents can make the decision to donate the individual’s body if prior paperwork was not done while living. Along with these family members, there are four other types of people who can make that decision for the deceased: an agent of the deceased, an adult who exhibited special care for the deceased, persons acting as the guardians of the deceased, and any person having the authority to dispose of the deceased body.12 When relatives make the decision, we as the onlookers must believe that they had their deceased family member’s wishes in their minds as they knew them best. When we delve into the “any person having the authority to dispose of the deceased body” category though, there is doubt of best interest. In Texas, the county commissioners court would have the authority to enact the anatomical gift, an act of which we know occurs in Dallas county.13 Fort Worth’s Tarrant County too has taken advantage of its whole body donation programs and has saved over $500,000 in a three year period.14 One must wonder if counties have the individual’s best interest in mind or if they are seeking the economic relief of not having to offer burial services to unclaimed bodies.

Measuring human skulls in physical anthropology ( United States National Museum. Division of Graphic Arts. Section of Photography, Photographic Collection, 1933, Smithsonian Institution Archives)

There are a few socio-economic issues to address, starting with the fact that lower-income regions are at higher risk of dealing out unclaimed bodies.15 To claim a body, you must do so with the knowledge that you (and possible family members) will be paying for the entirety of the burial proceedings. If you do not live in a county such as Bexar or El Paso in which the county offers pauper burials, and you cannot afford to pay for the burial on your own, there is a chance in which that Texas county will choose an anatomical gift option instead of a burial.  In a study done in Los Angeles, California, 2.37% of all deaths resulted in unclaimed bodies. Of that percentage, African Americans went unclaimed at higher rates than Caucasians and any other racial groups’ deaths.16 Now, delving back into the history of whole body donation and body snatching, it is important to note that African Americans were not the only victims in the ordeal. For centuries, Native American remains have been used in schools and museums as a source of teaching, but for most of that time, those remains were taken without the consent of the respective tribes. As of 1990, there were an estimated 300,000 Native American remains held by repositories in the United States. Advocates fought alongside the Native American tribes for the rights of their ancestral remains, leading to the U.S. Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act.17 This act held that all human remains of any ancestry “must at all times be treated with dignity and respect” and moved for any cultural and human remains to be returned to their respective tribe or for an understanding between the tribes and museums to be made.18 The fight for Native American repatriation has still not stopped though. In 1998, UC Berkeley was in contention for refusing to return the 9,000 native skeletons in the school’s collection, on the grounds that there was no specific tribe of California Indians that they could be traced back to.19 More recently in 2021, The School District of Philadelphia found a Native American skeleton in their closet, being back to 1850 and used as a teaching aid. While the school district has since then done their best to return the remains to its tribe, the matter of fact stands that at one point, that skeleton was wrongfully taken without the consent of fellow Native Americans.20

To restate the wording in NAGPRA, human remains must at all times be treated with dignity and respect.21
There have been many instances though, both in the United States and in other countries, in which we are left to wonder exactly where that dignity and respect is meant to be. In 2014, an FBI raid was conducted against the Biological Resource Centre in Arizona and found that the center was illegally selling body parts, one donated body being used by the military to test bombs. In another situation, an ex-veteran’s body was donated to Med Ed Labs in Las Vegas which then sold the body for $10,000 and was used for a dissection class in a hotel ballroom with a $500 entrance fee. In September of 2022, a lady who had been told her father’s body was being used to train medical students and even had his ashes returned found that her father’s body had in reality been dumped in a remote Arizona forest.22 In all of the cases above, the deceased individual had either given consent themselves or had consent given by their family. In the human cadaver exhibition, BODIES… The Exhibition, all of the cadavers are unclaimed bodies from China. While BODIES’s competitor, Body Worlds, claims all of their bodies were donated and completely legal, they have also chosen to not reveal any information of the individuals or any paperwork regarding their donations.23 These two exhibitions have caused tremendous controversy, with many people wanting for them to be shut down due to the believed disrespect shown to the displayed bodies. Whether the body was donated with or without consent, the manner in which these bodies are being treated in the name of science is not in content with the amount justice and respect they deserve.

A body from Gunther von Hagen’s Body Worlds Exhibition (Gunther von Hagens, gettyimages)

In 2012, the International Federation of Associations of Anatomists recommended that only donated bodies be used for anatomy teaching and research. In North America, while the United States uses mostly body donations, Canada uses exclusively body donations, Mexico uses mostly unclaimed bodies, and Nicaragua uses exclusively unclaimed bodies.24 There is no global standard as to what is acceptable and what is ethical. There is also no shared agreement as to when remains turn from being part of an individual to being an artifact to be used for teaching. In the United States, it is up to each state to set their own rules on whole body donations, and in Texas, it is up to each individual county to decide what to do with their unclaimed bodies.25 We are in a unique setting in which we can directly influence our local laws and regulations. Using unclaimed bodies for research may be beneficial in making medical advancements, but it is unethical as it majorly prays on low income regions, hold issues with the individual’s consent, and has no way to guarantee that the dignity and respect of the individual is being upheld.

  1. “What Happens When You Donate Your Body to Science | MIT Technology Review.” n.d. Accessed March 12, 2023.
  2. Habicht, Juri L., Claudia Kiessling, and Andreas Winkelmann. 2018. “Bodies for Anatomy Education in Medical Schools: An Overview of the Sources of Cadavers Worldwide.” Academic Medicine 93 (9): 1293–1300.
  5. “Pauper Burial Assistance | Bexar County, TX – Official Website.” n.d. Accessed March 12, 2023.
  6. “In Texas, the Cadavers of the Poor Are Used to Advance Medical Science, without Their Consent.” 2021. Dallas News. December 14, 2021.
  7. Meier, Allison. 2018. “Grave Robbing, Black Cemeteries, and the American Medical School.” JSTOR Daily. August 24, 2018.
  8. Magazine, Smithsonian, and Bess Lovejoy. n.d. “The Gory New York City Riot That Shaped American Medicine.” Smithsonian Magazine. Accessed March 8, 2023.
  9. Davidson, James M. 2007. “‘Resurrection Men’ in Dallas: The Illegal Use of Black Bodies as Medical Cadavers (1900—1907).” International Journal of Historical Archaeology 11 (3): 193–220.
  10. “Uniform Anatomical Gift Act.” n.d. LII / Legal Information Institute. Accessed March 12, 2023.
  11. Allison, Alexis. 2022. “Cadavers Help Students Prepare for Professions in Medicine. But Some Are Donated without Consent.” Fort Worth Report. April 3, 2022.
  12. Rajasekhar, S.S.S.N, K. Aravindhan, V. Gladwin, and Parkash Chand. 2016. “Body Donation- Consent from Non-Related Persons: Case Series, Review, and Recommendations.” Journal of Clinical and Diagnostic Research : JCDR 10 (9): AR01–4.
  13. “In Texas, the Cadavers of the Poor Are Used to Advance Medical Science, without Their Consent.” 2021. Dallas News. December 14, 2021.
  14. Allison, Alexis. 2022. “Cadavers Help Students Prepare for Professions in Medicine. But Some Are Donated without Consent.” Fort Worth Report. April 3, 2022.
  15. Jones, D. Gareth, and Maja I. Whitaker. 2012. “Anatomy’s Use of Unclaimed Bodies.” Clinical Anatomy 25 (2): 246–54.
  16. Sohn, Heeju, Stefan Timmermans, and Pamela J. Prickett. 2020. “Loneliness in Life and in Death? Social and Demographic Patterns of Unclaimed Deaths.” PLoS ONE 15 (9): e0238348.
  17. “Native American – Repatriation and the Disposition of the Dead | Britannica.” n.d. Accessed March 12, 2023.
  18. “Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (U.S. National Park Service).” n.d. Accessed March 12, 2023.
  19. Curtius, Mary. 1998. “Indian Remains Are Bones of Contention at Berkeley.” Los Angeles Times. April 27, 1998.
  20. Vlamis, Kelsey. n.d. “A Philadelphia School Will Return the Skeletal Remains of a Native American Man That Were Discovered in a Classroom Closet.” Insider. Accessed February 15, 2023.
  21. “Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (U.S. National Park Service).” n.d. Accessed March 12, 2023.
  22. “When Donating Your Body to Science Goes Wrong.” n.d. Discover Magazine. Accessed March 12, 2023.
  23. Ulaby, Neda. 2006. “Origins of Exhibited Cadavers Questioned.” NPR, August 11, 2006, sec. Science.
  24.  Habicht, Juri L., Claudia Kiessling, and Andreas Winkelmann. 2018. “Bodies for Anatomy Education in Medical Schools: An Overview of the Sources of Cadavers Worldwide.” Academic Medicine 93 (9): 1293–1300.

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Recent Comments


  • Xavier Bohorquez

    This aritcle was something else to read, I’ve never consider of thinking of bone donation as a valuable contribution to medical research and education.Until I read this, I finally saw the importance to ensure that the donation is made with informed consent, respect for the deceased, and fairness and accessibility for all. By considering these ethical considerations, donors can make a meaningful and ethical contribution to science and medicine. Wonderful Article!

  • Emilee Luera

    Most people rarely consider some of the morally questionable events that occurred during the last several decades while evaluating the direction of medical advances over the last several decades. It’s been fascinating and certainly a source of information I would not have considered otherwise. It feels bizarre to think of unclaimed bodies and the reality that, in my opinion, providing bodies is both unethical and terrible. I can see another point of view because there are benefits, and we can see the socioeconomic consequences of this item as well as its overall impact.

  • Joseph Frausto

    Great article an dcongratulations on your win at the research awards! It is interesting to hear about the moral implications and debates surrounding a stem based field and this subject especially poses a problem in the field of Catholic or religious ethics. I for one would be fine with having my donated, especially if I was unknown, but that’s just me. Great job.

  • Mia Garza

    This is such an interesting article on a topic that I never put much thought into. I was previously aware that unclaimed bodies could be used for donations, but I had never considered there being an ethical dilemma surrounding it. This article does a great job of explaining the history behind using unclaimed bodies and well as the socio economic aspect of the issue.

  • Carina Martinez

    Wow, I have never read an article like this! I find this ethical issue very interesting. You did a great job writing this. Congratulations on your award!

  • Christian Lopez

    When thinking of the pathway to medical advancement over the last several decades most people never really consider some of the morally questionable things that occurred. An article like this really places the idea of morales into areas of life that most people may not have every considered before.

  • Analyssa Garcia

    Hi Vanessa,

    Congratulations on your award for Best in Civic Engagement & Social Action, it is well deserved! This article is truly fascinating, as I kept reading on, I was learning more and more and did not want to stop reading! I had no idea that there was such a thing as “Resurrection Men” hired to steal the buried bodies of African Americans…..Unfortunately, though, I am not surprised. I am quite familiar with NAGPRA and the issues involved concerning the remains of Native Americans, so I am happy that you did your research on this area too. I agree completely that this is extremely unethical. Well done.

  • Illeana Molina

    Congratulations on an amazing topic and award. I am interested in ethics and how one thinks about what is right and wrong when it comes to a topic of this nature. It has been enlightening and definitely a source of knowledge I would not have thought about. It is odd to think about unclaimed bodies and the fact that donating bodies is unethical on my end as it is sad. I can see another side as there are benefits and we do see the socioeconomic thoughts as to this article and its impact overall. I am truly in the middle as I do believe the only way to learn is by doing and donating one’s body to science can help create future doctors’ careers. I enjoy your piece and appreciate reading a piece that allows the reader to decide for themselves and walk away with knowledge.

  • Fernando Milian

    Before reading this article, it never occurred to me that something like that could happen. Certainly, I do not know much about this topic, but when thinking of unclaimed bodies, I imagined that they would just be buried in a simple form. It never crossed my mind that they could be used for other purposes like the ones described in this article.
    I believe this article does a great job of putting such an interesting topic on the table for discussion. As your text describes, the issue of donating unclaimed bodies to science is highly multifaceted and raises significant ethical concerns. It opens the door for more profound questions about dignity and respect after life, and how those can be protected if we cannot do it. Great article, and congratulations on your award!

  • Carollann Serafin

    Donating your Body to science. We learn more every single day on the things we never thought to be considered. This article is really informative and helps with the general understanding of why choose to donate a body and what beneficial resources can you get out of it. This topic was a very good one to talk about ! Congrats on the award!

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