The statistics for organ donation are staggering. The United States government reports that more than 122,000 people in the nation are currently waiting for an organ (as of this writing in April 2014), and 18 people per day die on average while on that list. Clearly, the country – and the world – can use more organ donors. Organs donated by a single person who has passed away can save the lives of up to 8 others whose own organs have failed.
So, why don’t more people donate their organs? What use can a person possibly have for his or her organs after he or she has been pronounced dead by a medical doctor? Why would anyone want his organs to rot (or burn) away as part of his dead body when they could be put to blessed use saving the lives of others?
The answer to many of those questions is simply innocent ignorance.
Legal issues surrounding organ donation require that families in the midst of grief over the loss of a loved one make even more decisions that – in the wake of a death – are emotionally charged and therefore more difficult than they might otherwise be. It is easy to just say, “No, thank you,” when a member of a hospital staff approaches a family with a stack of forms and legal documents required of all who present their loved one’s body for organ donation. The overwhelming logistics of organizing a funeral service, entertaining out-of-town guests who will be arriving, responding to condolences, and, well, just coping with tough emotions, makes the complexities of organ donation the last thing that a family in show over a death wants to deal with.
This article offers some information that might help ease fears and stress over the thought of organ donation. It may be surprising to learn that funerals for organ donors are less complicated than one might assume.
Organ Donation Effects on Funerals
Believe it or not, experts say, organ donation usually has very little effect on a funeral. The procedure for removing a deceased person’s organs is usually completed within hours of a death, and the donation team is always comprised of surgical experts who are sensitive to the emotional needs of families wanting to have a body available for public viewing. The teams usually cut their incisions as unobtrusively as possible in the back of a body where they can be cosmetically covered during an embalming session. Donation teams often will work very closely with the embalmers, even consulting them on occasion as they go about their work.
In the vast majority of organ donation cases, removing a person’s organs has absolutely no affect upon plans for a funeral. At the most, except in extremely rare cases, the donation could result in a delay of a day or two – about the same amount of time that an autopsy typically requires. During this time, families are typically only beginning to solidify their plans for a memorial service. So it is often the case that a organ donors organs have been removed, and a body is back at a funeral home ready to be embalmed, even before the family has made a decision about whether to proceed with an embalming order.
Families make the final call
Many families assume that organ donation is an automatic occurrence in the event of a death of a person whose drivers license indicates he or she desires to be an organ donor. A large number of people have that message on their licenses these days, so it seems to often be the case that family members may believe that organs have actually be removed and donated even when they have not.
This is the result, as we say, of innocent ignorance. Laws in nearly every jurisdiction of the United States require that organ donation be approved by the family of a deceased – even when the deceased has indicated on a drivers license that he or she agrees to be a donor. Laws are clear that written permission from the deceased is just a first step to getting organs donated. The donor removal team will always require that a family member (or sometimes several family members) also approve the donation before any work can begin.
If a hospital staff senses that the mention of organ donation may cause stress and turmoil amongst a family that has just lost a loved one, it is likely that they will simply not bring the subject up. It is a mistake to assume that organ donation will be mentioned as a matter of routine: there is no legal requirement that a staff do so – even if the deceased’s drivers license indicates permission for donation.
It is certain that a great many organ donations are lost each year simply because family members assume that hospitals will approach them about the topic. For best results, family members who have an interest in seeing that their loved ones organs are properly donated should never be bashful about mentioning the subject to a hospital staff first – if possible within about 90 minutes of a death.
Free funerals for organ donors?
In an effort to encourage more organ donors across the world, some developed nations are these days beginning national programs by which funerals are paid for by the government’s health care system if the deceased’s organs are donated for either transplant or for medical research. While the economics – not to mention the ethics – of this idea are still very much under debate, such plans do have a great deal of political support (and have even been tried on a test basis) in nations such as Great Britain, Australia and France. It is too soon to know if this idea will develop into a world-wide phenomenon, but, if the goal of public policy is to encourage many more organ donations, this would seem to be a great solution.