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Ryan Harris on Death, Grief, and Body Donation

Death and dying are hard topics to talk about, but they’re important ones – particularly when the conversation is around what happens to your body following your death.

For some people, their thoughts turn to body donation. The University of New England runs a Body Donor Program, through which individuals can register their intention to donate their body after death. Through the program, donated bodies are used to teach the next generation of doctors and surgeons.

Ryan Harris, the manager of UNE’s Anatomy Lab, works with the Body Donor Program as well as with students who are learning from donors. Students studying medicine and health have the opportunity to come into the anatomy lab, and learn from donor bodies. These bodies have a finite time being studied, typically four years but as long as up to eight if needed.  Throughout our conversation, Ryan reinforces the importance of ethical considerations and respect for the people from whose bodies students learn from.

“The anatomy lab is a learning facility, and the people who have donated their body have done so with strict provisos that they are doing it for education. The anatomy lab is not a place where we are using it as a museum experience. We’re using it as an educational facility.”

How we refer to donated bodies is important. ‘Cadaver’ is the most well-known or understood term, but the clinical nature of the word can be off-putting to some, particularly when you consider that in life, this body was a person. Instead, Ryan prefers to say body donor, as a kinder, more respectful way of thinking.

“Each body donor that I have accepted into the program, I think it could be someone else’s grandmother, or mother, or father, or brother, or sister. They were a person with wants and needs, and a lot of love to give. When you think of them as that, the conversation is quite easy.”

Body donation, though, is still a difficult subject to discuss. A 2023 study found that just 26.5% of students studying anatomy expressed support for donating their body, and 10% of students surveyed would not support a family member of member of the public donating their body. Like all after-life decisions, talking your choice through with your family is important. Ryan suggests that everyone thinking of donating their body have that discussion with their family, and their next of kin, and really understand how they feel about it.

“Listen to them and hear what their answer is. Don’t just listen to them[…]follow up with, how are you really doing? What do you think about body donation? What do you really think about it? It’s [about] actually listening to someone and hearing what they have to say, or what their concerns are.”

“If you wish to donate your body, and you know your next of kin are uncomfortable with that, ask them ‘Are you okay with it? Are you really okay with it?’ I think that’s a good way to actually get the answer out of them, and to talk through it.”

If you want to learn more about the Body Donor Program, you can visit UNE’s Body Donor Program web-page.

Photo by <a href=””>National Cancer Institute</a> on <a href=””>Unsplash</a>