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Organ and body donation after death

Thousands of people in the UK are registered organ and tissue donors, choosing to save the lives of others after they’ve passed away. This guide will explain what happens if your loved one was an organ donor or wanted to donate their body to science.


Organ donation law in England

In May 2020, the law around organ donation in England changed to allow more people to save more lives. This is commonly referred to as an ‘opt-out' system. You may also hear it referred to as 'Max and Keira's Law'.

Under the law, all adults in England are considered as having agreed to donate their own organs when they die unless they record a decision not to donate or are in one of the excluded groups. 

Similar legislation was introduced in Wales in 2015 and Scotland also switched to an opt-out system in March 2021.

One donor could save or improve the lives of up to 9 people, but only around one in 100 people die in circumstances where organ donation is possible. Donors are typically those who have died in a hospital intensive care unit or emergency department.

You still have a choice

Even though the law around organ donation has changed, it is important to know that people still have a choice whether or not to donate. Families will still be consulted, and people’s faith, beliefs and culture will continue to be respected. 

You can register your decision:

Talk to your loved ones

Your family will always be asked to support your registered decision, and clinicians will never proceed with organ donation if your family or loved one’s object. However, your family can overturn your decision and each year, hundreds of opportunities for transplants are missed because families aren't sure what to do.

If you want to donate your organs after you die, it's important that those closest to you understand and support your choice.

If you don't want to donate your organs, you can still help your family through a difficult time by making sure they know what you want.

Whatever your organ donation decision, please talk to your loved ones about your wishes. Leave them certain.

Organ donation process

The NHS Donor Register is a confidential record of people’s donation decisions. It records your choice whether you want to become an organ donor or not when you die. 

The organ donation process begins by verifying that the person has passed away. Specialists will determine what, if any, organs can be donated; including the heart, lungs, liver, kidney, pancreas and small bowel, in addition to other tissues like the cornea, tendons and skin.

The surgical process completely depends on what organs are being donated. Once the surgeons have removed the specified organs, they are transported as quickly as possible to the recipient for immediate transplantation.


What happens after organ donation?

Timeframes for organ and tissue donation can vary as every circumstance is different. It typically takes between 12 to 36 hours for the necessary arrangements for donation to be made.

The person who has passed away will be treated with the utmost care and respect, and only those organs and tissue specified by the donor or their family will be removed.

Following the operation, families are invited to view the deceased at the hospital. Your funeral director will then make necessary arrangements to collect your loved one from the hospital and prepare them for the funeral.

Organ and tissue donation will not stop you from arranging an open-casket funeral. Your loved one’s surgical incisions will be carefully covered and they can also be clothed to ensure no signs of donation are visible.


How to donate your body to science

Anyone can decide to donate their body for the education of future healthcare professionals and scientific research, although it is not always possible for a body to be accepted. This will depend on the requirements of the medical school at the time of death as well as the circumstances of the death.

If you do want to donate your body to science, you will need to contact a medical school for further information and a consent form. It is important to make your wishes known in writing and inform friends or family about your decision.

Find out more information at the Human Tissue Authority (HTA)


Body donation process

Generally, a medical school must accept a body within six days of death and it is usually retained for a minimum of three years, although in some cases it will be less than this.

Please be aware that you may be asked to cover the cost of transporting your loved one to the medical school, especially if the death wasn’t local to the school.


What happens after body donation?

Medical schools usually arrange for donated bodies to be cremated, unless you specifically request for your loved one to be returned for a private burial or cremation. They may also hold a committal or memorial service to honour the deceased.

The cost of the cremation is often covered by the medical school; however, they don’t usually cover further funeral arrangements or burials.

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