I remember standing at the edge of yellowed-green grass, staring into the gaping hole in the ground. With my eyes wide open, I clutched my mom’s delicate hand and thought to myself, “Why are we putting Great Aunt Kitty into the ground?” It was an innocent enough question, especially for a child, but one that would lay the foundation for my position about death for years to come.

Death has always been an intimate subject to broach, one that forces us to confront our feelings about the after-life and spirituality, and to reflect upon how we are living in the present. Especially if we know death is imminent, it’s critical to decide on logistics for how we will die and what we want our loved ones to do with the bodies we leave behind. Some of us want to preemptively contemplate the fine details to clarify our final wishes to our loved ones in case something unexpected suddenly takes us away from them.

For roughly 15,000 Americans, their bodies will be donated to science within a few hours of their death. One day, I may be one of them.

I never imagined my body lying beneath the ground, my family standing around a tombstone clutching a bouquet of whatever my favorite flowers may have been, visiting on my birthday, mother’s day, or when they just happened to be in the area. I paid this respect to my grandparents and it brought me no peace. I’d stand up after a set of Hail Mary’s and stare across the seemingly endless rows of tombstones and markers scattered across the perfectly manicured lawn. No, I’d think, I don’t belong here.

To Dust They Shall Return

Cremating Remains
After bodies are donated and practiced upon by medical students, loved ones can claim their ashes afterwards for a proper ceremony. Photo courtesy of Chris Hondros/ Getty Images

Experts estimate there are roughly 10,500 cemeteries in the United States and more than 22,000 funeral homes. Seventy-six million Americans are projected to reach an average life expectancy of 78 years between 2024 and 2042. If every passing person were to be buried in standard plots, it would require about 130 square miles of grave space (that’s not counting the surrounding roads, pathways, or trees). To put into perspective, that’s about the size of Manhattan, the Bronx, and Brooklyn combined.

However, in the past 15 years, the U.S. cremation rate has nearly doubled, a practice by which the entire body is reduced to ash through intense heat. According to the Cremation Association of North America, nearly half (46.7 percent) of all Americans are cremated each year, and that number is predicted to rise to 50.6 percent by the year 2018. Experts believe more people are choosing cremation today than ever before because it allows for a wider range of memorial options, such as vases or scattering of the ashes, and is a more affordable and a better value for memorialization.

It was the option I had always considered, not that I was morbidly contemplating my death as if scanning a menu for the perfect dinner order. But I had given it some thought, and decided cremation was the ideal choice. It wasn’t until my grandfather told me with an off-the-cuff kind of demeanor that he wanted to donate his body to science. I turned to my cousin, who was in medical school at the time, and asked about her experience with the cadavers. After hearing her genuine high regard for the bodies she learned so much from, I began to research the process step-by-step.

How To Sign Your Body Away To Science

Hospitals treat donated bodies and their loved ones with the utmost respect, and oftentimes go out of their way to ensure the process is as simple and stress-free as possible. There are even organizations, such as Science Care, that connect whole body donors with medical facilities for students and researchers to further learn from. Afterwards, the organization plants a tree in honor of the donor. When the body reaches a university, experts like Dr. Kurt Gilliland, the co-director of anatomy at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine, oversee the embalming and preparation of the body before students begin their coursework.

“When the anatomy dissections begin in November of their first year, the anatomy faculty slowly gets the students acclimated to the cadaver as a patient and not just a specimen,” Gilliland, who is also the assistant dean of Curriculum and Evaluation at the medical school, told Medical Daily. “They have a chance to come in and think about how this was a living person and this person was a patient and now they’ve made a very important donation to medical education and training.”

Every semester, approximately 180 medical students are told the names of the deceased and how they died before the students practice on them as part of their coursework. After the donor has served as a three-dimensional anatomical model of the human body, most universities hold a yearly memorial service to honor the donors. At UNC, a total of 400 medical students, staff, and the family of the donors attend the service, where students read speeches, poems, sing in chorus, play instruments, and even dance to commemorate and celebrate the lives of donors.

“The families really get a sense of closure and a real sense of the good their loved one did by donating their body,” Gilliland says. “They can sense the thankfulness that the medical students have and the training to which they and their deceased loved one had contributed. I think that’s very important to them, to see that the goal was achieved.”

Each year, Gilliland reads aloud two letters which he’s had for 25 years. As he stands in front of the audience, there is a sense of otherworldly respect for the sacrifice from each of the 65 donors that were dissected that year. One letter, which was written by the donor himself, was sent to the school with the body and describes the good he wants his body to do in helping to cure disease. The second letter was written by the husband of the deceased, which reads: “please take care of this lovely lady.” Gilliland said, “I read it to remind the students the bodies have a voice.”

Even though families may have had a memorial service themselves at a church when the donor initially passed away, they had no ashes or body to bury. There at the medical school’s memorial service, the donor’s life comes full circle. Afterwards, the families are given their loved ones’ cremated remains, which gives them something to bury, scatter, or save. Gilliland reflects and says he believes this is what gives them a final sense of closure.

Understanding how my own body could be of use to science after death, rather than posthumously obsolete, brought me a premature fulfillment of a life I haven’t yet fully lived. A fulfillment I hope to give my own loved ones some day.