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How to Recycle Yourself

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Want to save money and contribute to mankind? Recycle yourself.

Yes, why not?

Just as you recycle plastics and papers, you can sign up to recycle your body and use it for medical research.

In fact, due to the economic recession that began in 2007 (and here's the silver lining), there's been an upswing in the number of people who have registered to donate their bodies to medical research, according to the Associated Medical Schools of New York. That means more medical students have cadavers to practice on to further their education, which, in turn, means that they'll be better able to help the living. What could be better?

I'm one of those people who've signed up for an anatomical donation. I've convinced my husband to join me and I urge others to follow suit. There are a number of compelling reasons to do this -- the first happens to be simple economics.

The National Funeral Directors Association reports that the average American funeral costs about $6,500 these days, and that does not factor in a cemetery plot, a gravestone and the cost of transporting the casket to the cemetery. These incidentals, including flowers, can push the price tag above $10,000.

If you donate your body to medical research, however, the cost is absolutely zero. According to an Association of Medical Schools of New York spokesman, upon my death, the closest medical school makes all the arrangements for my body free-of-charge. And while almost a quarter of all Americans over the age of 50 prepay some of their funeral costs (statistics from the AARP), I'd much rather enjoy my money while I'm alive.

I don't want to burden my children -- who are struggling enough in this economy -- with the financial burden of buying and maintaining a cemetery plot for me. I don't need a marble stone with my name etched on it. I don't need them to come to the cemetery for an obligatory visit and do what: talk to a silent stone? I'd rather they think of me in a place that's full of life, at random moments, when they're doing something they enjoy.

Over the past few decades, cemeteries around the country have become over-crowded. You have to admit: The dead take up valuable space. The earth's dwindling resources should be used to serve the living, for building parks and outdoor spaces, and not for rows and rows of graves. Military cemeteries, maybe. But otherwise, why? How many people, really, come to visit?

Whenever I pass any cemetery, it's always empty.

Don't get me wrong: I have the utmost respect for the dead. In fact, I am a member of a hevra kadisha, a volunteer burial society, that dresses women for burial according to ancient Jewish traditions. I know what death smells and looks like. I've held enough dead women's hands as I slip their arms through the sleeves of their shrouds to know what death feels like, too. I can envision my own corpse after my soul slips away.

I've come to understand that I need to wear this body -- and this life -- like a loose garment.

Once it's over, it will have served its purpose like a beautiful wedding gown. Eventually, the party is over and you have to step out. Besides, I won't need my body for my next journey.
At first, I hesitated. Then I asked my rabbi who said there's nothing wrong with donating my body to science. Most donors typically provide a length of study of between 18 and 24 months for medical students as well as residents in a number of disciplines and medical sub-specialties. When that's over, my kids can choose to have the remains cremated or they can bury the little of me that's left.

What difference does it make, anyway? Let's be real: we'll either lie under the earth, decomposing like a compost pile with maggots nibbling at our flesh, or we'll be lying under the bright lights of an examination room. I would never consider cremation: it's like throwing books into a fire.

You might ask, what about closure? Well, you don't need a body to hold a funeral. You can still ask the religious leader of your choice to recite prayers and give a eulogy. Around the country, many medical schools hold yearly ceremonies in which medical students express their sincere appreciation to the families of the donors. At the annual ceremony at Weill-Cornell Medical School, students share how important this gift is to their studies. Some of the students have tears in their eyes.

I know this idea might take a while to catch on. Many of us play pretend, refusing to consider our own demise. Yet we won't last forever. We all need to look our own death in the face and make conscious, informed decisions. I'm all for green living.

And green dying.