Organ and Body Donation

How to donate your organs, tissue and body after your death

Last updated: 21 June 2017

Organ and tissue donation

Thousands of people in the UK are registered organ and tissue donors. Donated organs and tissue save and improve thousands of lives every year in the UK.

By signing the organ donation register, you can make clear your wishes to donate your organs and tissue after you die. Tissue and organ donation after death can also help with research that can lead to the prevention of diseases, as well as the education of future doctors and nurses.

Having a medical condition does not necessarily mean you cannot donate your tissue and organs after death. A doctor will decide at the time of death which organs are suitable for transplant.

Organ donation

Transplanting an organ can only happen under certain circumstances:

  • When the donor experiences brain stem death. They are still alive, but have permanently lost any brain activity and cannot breathe without a ventilator.
  • When the donor experiences circulatory death. This is when the heart and lungs are permanently unable to function and the patient cannot or should not be resuscitated.
  • When the donor is making a living donation. You can donate a kidney, part of your liver, bone from a hip or knee replacement, and placenta while still alive.

Tissue donation

When you sign the organ donor register, you can also choose to donate tissue. This includes skin, corneas (from the eye), heart valves, bone and tendons. Tissue donations can save lives and improve medical conditions such as heart defects, eyesight problems and serious skin burns.

Whereas organ donation requires a rare and specific set of circumstances to be possible, tissue donation is much more feasible. Many tissues can be taken for donation up to 48 hours after death and can be stored for several months until they are needed.

What happens after organ or tissue donation?

After your loved one has donated organs or tissue, you will be able to arrange for your chosen funeral director to collect them from the hospital and prepare them for the funeral. As with any operation, great care is taken by doctors to ensure that procedures carried out during and after surgery are carried out with dignity and respect.

After the operation, families can arrange to view their loved one at the hospital. Any post-surgery marks will be covered by clothing, so families can still opt for an open casket funeral for their loved one if they wish.

The Donor Family Network offers support and information to bereaved donor families who are coping with the loss of a loved one.

Signing the organ donor register

England and Northern Ireland

If you live in England or Northern Ireland, you can sign the NHS organ donor register online. You can choose whether you want to donate all of your organs and tissue, or just some. This allows you to opt out of any organs you don’t want to donate.

Once you sign the register, it is important to discuss your wishes with your loved ones. When the time comes, they will have no legal right to overturn your decision to be a donor. It may be less distressing for them to know your wishes in advance.

If you do not sign the organ donor register, it will be up to your next of kin to make a decision on your behalf after your death.

Scotland

In Scotland, you can register with Organ Donation Scotland online. You can choose whether you want to donate all of your organs and tissue, or just some.

Like in England and Northern Ireland, your loved ones cannot overturn your decision to be a donor after you have died. It may be best to discuss your wishes with them in advance.

Wales

Wales has a ‘soft’ opt-out donor scheme. Since December 1, 2015, anyone who has not opted out through Organ Donation Wales is regarded to have given ‘deemed consent’ to organ donation, even if they haven’t registered a decision.

This means for people aged over 18 who live or die in Wales, that if they haven’t registered to opt in – or opt out – of the donor scheme, they will be regarded as having no objection to being a donor.

You can register a decision not to become an organ donor by opting out. If you opt in, you can choose donate all or some of your organs and tissue. If you opt for “some” you can specify the organs and tissue you wish to donate.

If donation is possible, the organ donor register is checked and discussions are held with family members before an organ transplant or tissue donation takes place.

Donating your body

Body donations are vital for the education of future healthcare professionals and scientific research. If you want to donate your body after you die, you will need to contact your local medical school to obtain and sign a consent form.

The Human Tissue Authority (HTA), the organisation responsible for licensing and inspecting facilities accepting body donations, has a useful list of medical schools, which you can search to find a suitable institution.

However, the HTA is not responsible for body donations in Scotland. You can find information on medical schools in Scotland on the Scottish Government’s website.

For those living on the Isle of Wight or Channel Islands, body donation may be more difficult. It may be possible for a medical school on the UK mainland to accept a donation, although you will need to make financial arrangements with a local funeral director for the transportation of your body.

After you have signed the relevant consent forms with your chosen medical school, you should inform your family, friends and GP of your decision. A copy of the consent form should also be kept with your will.

You should be aware that many medical schools ask you or your loved ones to cover the cost of transporting the body to the medical school, especially in cases where the death did not occur locally. Check with your chosen medical school to see what costs are covered.

Why your body donation may not be accepted

Sometimes medical schools are unable to accept body donations. This can vary between medical schools, so always check the conditions before signing the consent form.

Reasons why a donation might be rejected include:

Certain medical conditions If a post-mortem examination has been carried out If the death occurs during the holiday period

Therefore it is essential to have an alternative plan in the event that your chosen medical school is not able to accept your body donation.

Will there be a funeral?

It is common for medical schools to arrange for the body to be cremated, unless otherwise requested by the next of kin. Although medical schools may cover the cost of a cremation, they usually will not cover further funeral arrangements or private burials. Medical schools may also hold memorials and thanksgiving services to honour those who have made a body donation.

If your loved ones want to hold a private funeral service, they will be responsible for the costs. You may want to make financial arrangements in advance to cover these costs, such as taking out a funeral plan.