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July 22, 2019 Beyond The Dash

Does Organ Donation Affect Funeral Plans?

Can a body that has donated organs be embalmed and viewed?

Does Organ Donation Affect Funeral Plans?
Many people want their organs donated after they die. But oftentimes these plans are derailed by family who fear interruptions to the funeral plans. (Getty Images)

When someone passes away, one of the first decisions that needs to be made is whether or not the person is a candidate for organ donation. People who register to be an organ donor agree to their organs being procured after death. Their organs are used to save lives, improve quality of life or for research purposes.

Unfortunately, life-saving organ procurement procedures are often prevented by family members, even when the deceased person was a consenting and registered organ donor. While there are many reasons for this, misconceptions about the effect of organ donation on funeral arrangements can play into a family's objection to organ donation. 

How does a person become an organ donor?

In the United States and Canada, organ donation registration can be done through your local motor vehicle department. However, registration can be done within minutes by registering online

Pre-planning your arrangements with a funeral director is another way to ensure that you are registered as a donor. If you want your body to be donated for research or study purposes, your funeral director will also be able to find the right place for your remains to be delivered. 

What happens when an organ donor dies?

As soon as the heart stops pumping blood, organs and tissue begin to die. Organs become unusable soon after death, so procurement of organs generally needs to begin within minutes after death. Some tissues may be removed up to 24 hours after death. This is why patients that are technically brain dead can be good donor candidates. People who die away from a hospital, hospice or medical center may not be able to have their organs procured for donation in time to save a life. 

Even if a person was a registered organ donor and at the hospital during their death, an objecting family member can quash the procedure. According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information, even though 69–75% of people express willingness to donate their organs, about 50% of families decline to do so on behalf of their deceased relatives. 

If the brain death is confirmed, and consent to donate is established, an organ procurement specialist makes their way to the hospital while the donor is kept ventilated and on life support. The body's tissues must be receiving blood and oxygen in order to be usable for transplant. In the operating room, a biopsy is performed on each organ to determine if it can be used. 

A match is determined from a waitlist of people who need a transplant. The organs are kept on ice and transported to the hospital where surgery will occur. Time is of the essence: Each organ has a limited time frame before they are unable to transplant. 

For the person donating, organ procurement can take several hours. At the end, they are sent to the funeral home of the family's choice.

When an organ donor passes away, organ donation specialists have no time to waste. (Getty Images)

Uncertainty can prevent life-saving donations

When a loved one passes, it can be difficult for the grieving family to imagine consenting to an organ donation. Imagining the surgery for organ procurement may be frightening to some. For others, the idea of a loved one's organs continuing to live on in another's body is hard to cope with. These issues are emotionally challenging, but knowing the donation may be able to save lives can ease this discomfort.

However, there are several misconceptions about organ donation that contribute to families revoking consent for organ donation. Here are some of the most common questions that hold people back from giving the gift of life:

Q: Will organ donation delay the funeral?

A: Transplant organs must be procured immediately after death, whereas tissues may be taken up to a day later. Either way, the body will not be delayed more than 24 hours before being transported to the funeral home. Most funerals do not occur for days or even a week following a death, so procurement does not affect the funeral timing in any significant way. 

Q: Can an organ donor's body be embalmed?

A: Embalming is the process of preserving and restoring a body, usually for viewing at a visitation ceremony. Organ donation does not affect a mortician's ability to fully embalm a body. Most funeral directors have restored hundreds or thousands of organ donors to the same or similar appearance as the person had in life. 

Q: Can an organ donor's body be viewed by family?

A: Once a body is fully embalmed by a qualified mortician, it can be viewed in a visitation ceremony. Part of the embalming process is to restore the person to a lifelike condition. Using makeup, prosthetics and clothing, morticians cover and fill any visible abrasions, incisions or imperfections. Modern embalming procedures are so advanced that those viewing the body will not be able to tell that an organ donation has taken place. 

Giving life, in death

When an organ donor dies, the process of organ procurement must begin immediately. With no time to waste before transplanting, this procedure does not delay the funeral in any significant way. Bodies that have given tissue or organs can be embalmed and restored, without sacrificing a viewing ceremony if that is the family's preference.

The decision to donate can be a very personal one. While there should be no pressure to become an organ donor, a single donor can save multiple lives through this selfless act of giving. While there are reasons that people choose not to donate, concerns about funeral arrangements need not interfere with this decision. 

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