Inflation in the funeral business in Germany has led a record number of people to leave their bodies to science, to the point where researchers are now turning away cadavers or even charging donors.
“If you look at the 33 anatomy institutes in Germany taken together, the supply of bodies donated to science has been higher than the demand for a few years now,” Friedrich Paulsen, a professor at the Institute for Anatomy at Martin Luther University in the eastern city of Halle, told AFP.
“Axel Burchardt, spokesman for the Friedrich Schiller University in Jena, eastern Germany has no illusions about what has led to the wave of generosity among grieving families: research institutes generally assume the cost of a funeral once the dearly departed have been dissected.
“It is probably no accident that we have registered a boom in cadaver donations,” he said. Burchardt noted that when only a heart or a kidney is taken from a person who has recently died, the cost of the funeral falls to the family.
Rising taxes on cemeteries mean that burial ceremonies now average upwards of €3,000, according to Heike Boehme-Kueppenbender of the Federation of German Undertakers. ”For luxury funerals, the sky's the limit,” she said.
Since 2004, public health insurance funds have also axed the €1,000 stipend for funerals. Some families have had to seek public assistance to pay for their loved ones’ burial, while others have sought plots in the Netherlands, Belgium, France or Switzerland where the cost of interment is lower, Boehme-Kueppenbender said.
Against this backdrop, Andreas Winkelmann, a professor at Berlin's Charite teaching hospital, said it is always less expensive to donate a body for research, although he said it was almost never the sole reason for giving away a corpse.
In Frankfurt in the west, the number of donated cadavers has been rising for three to five years, said Christof Schomerus, of the anatomy department staff at the Goethe University.
”We have 30 or 35 cadavers every year but we only need 20 or 25 for the students,” he said. “With a dozen left over, we do continuing education for doctors.”
He said he welcomed the surplus compared to a dearth a decade ago.
“We no longer have to put ads in the papers,” Schomerus said.
He said the downside was rising costs for anatomy colleges because German law stipulates that every body, dissected or not, must receive a burial or cremation.
Institutes once received state funeral allowances for each corpse bequeathed but the funds were eliminated in 2004.
In addition come the costs of transport and preservation, which has led about a quarter of institutes in Germany to levy a fee on bodies donated of between €450 and €1,250, Paulsen in Halle said.
In Munich, volunteers are asked for their “understanding” about the €1,150 fee but there was room to negotiate “in case of urgent need”.
The anatomy institute there admitted that some volunteers had backed out of their offer to donate their corpses upon their death as a result of the charge but said it was nevertheless overwhelmed with donations and forced to cap them.
In the northern city of Hannover, only local residents may apply. In other cities including Leipzig, Frankfurt or Halle, volunteers must live within 100 kilometres of the institute.
“We do not want to see the development of cadaver tourism," Schomerus explained dryly.
Sabine Loeffler at the University of Leipzig admitted the new rules were a bit harsh.
“It may be a little macabre but we do not have a choice,” she said.