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Number of bodies donated to medical institutions on the rise

Junichiro Oda prays before a corkboard decorated with photos of his relatives from Kagoshima Prefecture at his home in Chita, Aichi Prefecture, on June 30, 2017. (Mainichi)

In recent years, the number of people donating their bodies to medical and dental institutions for students to practice autopsies on is growing. The reason? Because while benefiting medicine, cremation is covered by the institution and the donators won't financially burden their relatives.

In the basement of a medical department facility at a university in the Kansai region, cadavers are lined up in individual lockers, preserved from decay with alcohol and formaldehyde. There are around 100 bodies stored in refrigeration here at any time awaiting autopsy practice.

Some three years ago, 73-year-old Junichiro Oda of Chita, Aichi Prefecture, registered his own body to be donated to the students of a medical and dentistry department of a university in the prefecture for autopsy training. "I wasn't able to make my family happy. I want to at least be useful to society after my death," he explained.

Oda was born in a farming village in Kagoshima Prefecture, the oldest son in family with five children. After graduating from a local high school, he moved to Nagoya, getting a job at a construction company, marrying, and having a daughter. He was even able to build his dream house for his family, but his happiness did not last long. The construction firm he started in his 30s did not go well, and he ended up taking out a consumer loan worth several million yen. Within five years, he had lost his home, and after constant fighting with his wife, the couple divorced. His wife took their daughter, and since then, he has lived alone.

After his company went under, he worked as a daytime laborer while doing other jobs for several years until he was diagnosed with stomach cancer at 63 years old. Unable to work, he just accumulated more debt, and even attempted suicide through carbon monoxide poisoning using coal briquettes. Since he declared personal bankruptcy, his monthly income composed of public welfare and his government pension has come out to roughly 90,000 yen.

"If I donate my body, the university will take care of the cremation, and it won't cost any money, so I won't cause my relatives any inconvenience," Oda said. "That way, I can be useful to society and 'kill three birds with one stone.'"

In Oda's room, there is a corkboard decorated with faded photos of his mother, siblings and his daughter. Every day he asks those in the photos how they are doing. In order to have his body donated to a medical school, permission from his family is required. His father died 30 years ago, however, and his mother is hospitalized in Kagoshima Prefecture. When he contacted his daughter for the first time in a long while, she provided permission.

Bodies can be registered for donation through 91 medical and dental departments at universities nationwide as well as through 56 organizations known as beneficiary groups. The Tokyo-based "Tokushi Kaibou Zenkoku Rengokai" (National federation of voluntary anatomical donation) reports that recently, at least 5,000 donations are registered a year. Of the 3,810 practice autopsies carried out in the 2015 fiscal year, donated bodies made up 99 percent of those dissected, at 3,770 cases. There are also many universities that have begun limiting the number of registrations they accept due to overcrowding. Thirty years ago, the percentage of donated bodies was less than 50 percent, and the majority of bodies used for autopsy training were of those who could not be identified.

When someone on the registry passes away, a member of the funeral business will take the body, which is then stored at the university until use. However, with the rise in registrations in recent years, there are cases were a body may be preserved for three years until it is used by students. All costs are covered by the university, which cremates the body after the practice autopsy has been completed and returns the remains to the family if there is one. If there is no one to receive the remains, they are laid to rest in a university vault.

"Donating your body is not an alternative for funeral rites," says federation head and Kyorin University School of Medicine professor Joji Matsumura. "We just confirm if the person in question would like to contribute to medicine. We can't go as far as ask about family relations or financial situations."

Oda's ancestors are enshrined at a temple in Kagoshima. "All I have done so far is cause them worry, but at the very least I would like my remains to rest beside theirs."

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