Organ and body donations

Body donations are an invaluable resource for medical education and development. Most people in Sweden who wish to donate their bodies can do so and thereby benefit medical education and science.

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Despite major advances in terms of technical and digital development, there remains a large need for body donations to medical education and development. Sophisticated computer simulation and high-tech imaging technologies cannot replace the added value offered by teaching using donated bodies. These studies also provide us with important information and knowledge regarding differences between individuals, age groups and genders.

Approximately 80 body donations take place in Sweden each year, all of which advance medical teaching and development. The recipients of these donations are the teaching departments at universities in Umeå, Uppsala, Linköping and Gothenburg, as well as Karolinska Institutet (KI) in Stockholm.

From an international perspective, Sweden has a relatively low frequency of donation. One reason for this may be that people in general know very little about whole-body donations. If more people chose to become donors, this would contribute to improved teaching, research and healthcare.

How donated bodies are used

At Karolinska Institutet, most donated bodies are used in anatomy lessons for medical students and, to a lesser extent, for prospective dentists, physiotherapists and, in rare cases, other healthcare professionals. For many students, anatomy courses early on in their studies are also their first encounter with a deceased person, something that leads to discussion, reflection and targeted teaching regarding medical ethics and professionalism.

Another important area of use is in anatomical training and advancement for specialists at advanced level, especially for surgeons. In Sweden, this is less common as the number of donations is inadequate for this purpose. Whole-body donations are also important to research and development, for example to develop surgical methods and obtaining knowledge in fields where animal experiments are insufficient. 

At Karolinska Institutet, however, donated bodies are currently solely used in first-cycle education, and not for research or training of specialists. 

Almost everyone can donate their body

The vast majority of people in Sweden who are between 18 and 95 years of age can donate their body to medical education and development, if they so wish. Donors consent to having their remains handled by the anatomy unit at the Department of Neuroscience, Karolinska Institutet.

Prior to reaching the decision of donating their body, it is important that the prospective donors have given thorough consideration to the matter and have no reservations about entering the donation agreement. This could often be expressed as a desire to “benefit medical science”.

A prerequisite for any donation is that, after the donation, the body may be handled freely at the Karolinska Institutet anatomy unit. Among other things, this means that there cannot be any restrictions attached, of either religious or existential nature, regarding the normal use of a deceased person under such circumstances. Some diseases, obesity, injuries or other changes to the body can prevent the body from being suitable for donation or to be handled by the anatomy unit. 

For many donors, their decision provides a sense of meaning, an ability to contribute to a better understanding of the human body for the benefit of future generations. This must naturally be met with a serious and respectful code of ethics on the part of the organisation receiving the body, and all those associated with it. The donors have placed great trust in the medical faculty and provided an invaluable resource in the form of their donation. A decision which creates a duty on the part of the recipient of the donation.

If possible, include your family in the decision.

Even if entering a body donation agreement is a fully personal decision, it could be wise to inform close relatives or next of kin about the decision and its implications. Not least to prevent any uncertainty regarding the donation, or differences of opinion about how the body should be handled after death.

Ensuring the donor’s rights and suitability

The donation agreement ("donationsavtal" in Swedish) is an agreement between the donor and the receiving anatomy unit at the Department of Neuroscience, Karolinska Institutet. Only the donor can enter such an agreement. Relatives of the deceased cannot donate the body after the person's death.

Donation agreement

Donation agreement, in Swedish (pdf)

The donation agreement, signed by the donor, is completed and sent to the anatomy unit. A decision is made as to whether the donation can be accepted and whether the wishes and reservations stated by the donor on the form are possible to fulfil. If this is the case, the donation agreement will be signed by a donation administrator or unit manager. The donation agreement will be archived at the anatomy unit at Karolinska Institutet, and a copy will be returned to the donor along with a donor's card. It is only at this point that the proposed donation becomes valid.

The donor is responsible for ensuring that the agreement is stored somewhere known to his/her next of kin, as well as informing any healthcare provider about the decision.

The donation agreement includes information about funeral preferences. It is important that the form is completed as thoroughly and clearly as possible, and that the donor contacts the anatomy unit should any changes need to be made to the donation agreement.

The donor can discontinue the agreement at any time, without giving a reason. Contact the anatomy unit by regular mail, e-mail or telephone (see Contact info). Please note that the anatomy unit can discontinue the agreement, should the body prove, for any reason, to be unsuitable for donation after death. 

Organ donors and body donors

In certain cases, an individual may be interested in two different types of donation; the donation of organs for life-saving transplants and body donation for medical teaching and development purposes. If so, the individual in question may be both registered as an organ donor and have entered into a body donor agreement.

In practice, it is impossible to first be an organ donor and then be accepted as a body donor. The basic attitude of the medical profession in cases where both a life-saving transplant and a while body donation are possible, is that a life-saving transplantation must take precedence.

Those with an interest in both types of donation can therefore register as an organ donor and also enter into a body donor agreement. The circumstances surrounding their death will then decide which type of donation they will make.

The Brain Bank and the Brain Bank for Autism and Related Disorders, both at KI, also accepts donations of brain tissue and bone marrow for neurobiological and medical research.

What happens after a donor has died?

The anatomy unit at KI should be contacted as soon as possible after the death, either by a relative or healthcare official. A check will then be made that the donation can still go ahead. Among other things, this involves checking that the attending doctor has been able to confirm cause of death without an autopsy (an autopsy makes donation impossible), that the person did not carry or die from an infectious disease or that the body is not damaged in some other way.

If the donor is still suitable, their body will be transported from the morgue to KI’s anatomy unit. Once there, the body will be embalmed and then used for teaching purposes. After approximately one to two years, the body will be cremated – if the agreement does not state anything else – and returned to the family for burial. However, a symbolic funeral service has normally already been held a couple of weeks after death.

About donor anonymity

The donor’s identity is strictly protected throughout the donation process. The donation agreement is stored under high security and is only available to a few authorised individuals. On arrival at the anatomy department, the standard ID bracelet on the deceased is replaced with a neutral code or serial number. All staff and students who come into contact with the donor have a strict duty of confidentiality, both with regard to any aspect that may identify an individual and observations made of the donor.

If an image is taken of the body, for example a photograph, no distinguishing features, tattoos or other characteristics that may be linked to the donor’s identity may be included. The donor’s complete anonymity during handling at the anatomy department also makes it impossible to obtain any records or findings regarding the individual's medical condition.

Financial aspects

A body donation is a charitable act. No cash reimbursement is made during the donor’s lifetime. However, a completed body donation does relieve the deceased’s estate of certain costs.

The university’s financial undertaking applies within Sweden and covers:

  • Transportation costs for the deceased body from the morgue to the anatomy unit at KI, and from KI to the crematory or cemetery.
  • Fees to the funeral contractor.
  • Costs for coffin and burial urn of basic model 
  • Costs for cremation and final interment of ashes/remains at a cemetery in Sweden.

The family is entirely at liberty to make additional payments, for example for a more expensive coffin over and above the most basic model, announcements, flowers or officiation. The costs of any memorial service are not met by the university. If a donor has signed funeral insurance, this should primarily cover the costs, while the university is responsible for any excess amount. Please note that KI cannot administrate burials or final interment of ashes/remains at any other location than a cemetery in Sweden. For information about for example scattering the ashes at sea, contact the County Administrative Board (Länsstyrelsen).

Make a donation

Contact info

For questions about about whole-body donations:

+46 (0)8-33 68 55 | helkroppsdonation@ki.se

Management

Johan Södergren, Pathology technician, Director

Address

Karolinska Institutet
Helkroppsdonation, undervisningsavdelningen neurovetenskap (BZ)
Berzelius väg 3
SE-171 65 SOLNA