The human form, stripped down to only its scaffolding, has been the subject of spooky stories and nightmares for centuries. Yet that same structure is also a source of awe. Our skeletons provide the framework of our entire bodies. Without them we would just be blobs, unable to sit upright at the office or do downward dog during yoga class. Our skeletons are with us all of our lives, hidden but necessary.
When we die, our skeletons remain the only physical reminder of our lives here on earth, so why not put them to good use? Following are four unique ways for your skeleton to make a difference long after you’re gone.
1) Bond through Bone Grafts.
A bone graft is used during surgery to repair bones damaged in accidents, or to correct problem joints. A college student injured in a car crash and a senior citizen in need of a hip replacement are both potential candidates for bone grafts.
There are two ways to go about getting the bone needed for a bone graft. The first is to use the bone of the patient himself, which is called an autograft. The second is to use bone from a cadaver. This is called an allograft.
When you choose to donate your tissue after you die, it is stored in a tissue bank. In the case of bone, it is stored at a bone bank. When someone needs surgery that requires a bone graft, doctors can turn to the bone bank for the perfect match.
While most people think of life-saving organ transplants when they think of tissue donation, bone grafts are also a generous final gift. Without bone from cadavers to use for bone grafts, doctors would need to harvest bone from the patient, which could mean the need for a second surgery. By donating tissue, such as bone, you can help alleviate the pain and recovery time for patients already facing the prospect of one surgery, let alone two.
2) Hang out in New Mexico.
The Maxwell Museum of Anthropology at the University of New Mexico has been amassing a collection of human skeletons since 1984, and they would love for you to join them when your time comes. Their Documented Skeletal Collection includes men and women of all ages representing an array of ethnicities and backgrounds. So far, close to 300 individuals have chosen to have their skeletons preserved for all eternity in the Southwest.
The collection is available to graduate students, faculty and visiting researchers who are approved in advance by the university. By choosing to donate your skeletal remains, you would be providing a rich experience for medical researchers who seek to understand how certain diseases manifest, as well as the effects of repetitive motions and trauma on human bones. The specimens are also used to educate the next generation of physicians.
The only caveat is that the museum does not handle transportation of cadavers. Your family or your estate will have to arrange for your one-way ticket to Albuquerque.
3) Get Plastinated.
Plastination is pretty much what it sounds like. Developed in the late 1970s by German anatomist Gunther von Hagens, the four-part process replaces water and fat in the body with plastics. Why would you want to do that? Well, doing so produces remarkably lifelike specimens that can be studied, without the worry of decay or odor due to decomposition, which makes studying real-world anatomy a whole lot easier.
Preserving biological materials in plastics is a great way to create reusable and educational teaching tools. Instead of an anatomy professor worrying about where her next cadaver or body part will be coming from, she can rest easy knowing her students will have access to a well-preserved, fully intact display piece. In addition, plastination means that other parts of the body, including muscles and ligaments, can also be preserved and studied.
Von Hagens established the Institute for Plastination in 1993. He took his show on the road when he started Body Worlds, an exhibition of real human bodies that had been plastinated. Visitors to the exhibits are able to compare diseased body parts with healthy body parts, and are also treated to the view of a human being below the flesh that most people don’t get to see.
4) Go to Medical School.
By donating your body to a medical school, you will help the next generation of physicians save and improve lives. The anatomy of the human body takes on new dimensions when students leave the pages of their textbooks to explore an actual cadaver. No illustration or 3D simulation, no matter how realistic, can ever compare to the experience of working with an actual human body.
Although you will be donating more than your skeleton in this case, you can be sure that your 206 bones will be along for the ride. In addition to helping future doctors learn about anatomy up close and personal, you will also be assisting with enhancing—or even creating—new medical techniques and devices.