Making decisions about organ donation 

4 min read

Important organ donation facts

  • If someone has not registered as an organ donor, their next of kin can decide on their behalf after they have passed.

  • Despite popular misconception, almost all religions allow and even encourage organ donation when it will save lives.

  • Organ donation does not prevent you from having an open-casket wake or funeral.

  • Children as young as 12 can register as organ donors in some states. Their parents can override their wishes, however, if they are under 16.

While still in the immediate aftermath of a loved one’s passing, you may have to face the question of organ donation. Realizing that donating their organs may save someone else’s life or contribute to critical medical research, many people sign up to be donors, usually through state registries when they get their driver’s license or register to vote. In fact, if your loved one is a donor, they could potentially save the lives of eight other individuals. Though nothing can make up for the loss that you are suffering through, it may be comforting to think of your loved one helping others in need even now that they are gone.

You should know that very few people actually wind up being eligible donors, as organ donation typically can only take place if a person dies in very specific ways. Only three out of every 1,000 people annually are able to donate their organs. (More people, including those who pass away at home, may be able to donate tissue such as heart valves rather than organs.)

If your loved one passes away in a hospital, however, and certain conditions are met, you may have to make decisions about donation, and it is important to have all of the facts. The many misconceptions around organ donation can sometimes prevent people from opting for it, and missing the opportunity to save someone’s life.

If your loved one was not registered

Should your loved one have registered to be a donor, then the primary decision is out of your hands. The hospital will take care of everything from this point. A staff member will talk to you about what will happen next and walk you through the various processes involved.

If, on the other hand, your loved one was not registered, and their organs are viable candidates for transplant, the next of kin or the person authorized to make medical decisions will have to choose whether to donate.

Unless your loved one expressed that they did not want to donate their organs, the fact that they did not register as a donor should not be taken as evidence of their unwillingness to be one. People fail to register to be organ donors for a variety of reasons, even if they support its premise and goal.

If you think your loved one would have wanted this, you can grant the needed permission. Hospital staff or a representative from an organ procurement organization will likely speak with you about this opportunity and give you some time to consider the decision. 

Religious questions

Some people opt not to become organ donors because they mistakenly think their faith bars them from doing so. This is a popular misunderstanding, in fact, and most religions not only permit it but encourage it in any case where it can save a life.

If you have any questions about your loved one’s religion’s perspective on this matter, consider asking a clergyperson or a hospital chaplain for clarification. Organ donation is no small decision, and you should have all the information you want before you make it for your loved one.

If you do decide to opt for donation, take heart in knowing that your loved one has given someone in need an immeasurable gift.

Open casket concerns

Some people opt against organ donation because they fear it means they will not be able to have an open casket for their loved one at the funeral. This is not so. 

According to the Donor Alliance, bodies in an open casket are dressed, and surgery for organ donation is performed with a closed, discreet incision. Nobody at the funeral will be able to see any evidence of the donation procedure.

Young donors

Some people think that minors are not able to be organ donors. In fact, many states allow people as young as 12 to join the registry. Whether it is permitted in their state or not, young people should tell their parents their wishes and get their consent, as parents of children under 16 can potentially override their desire to be an organ donor. 

Honoring a young person’s request—or choosing to donate their organs if they did not make their wishes known—is particularly respectable, as young organ recipients are often in need of smaller organs that can be harder to find.

Older donors

Alternatively, some would-be donors fear their loved one may be too old to qualify. That fear is unwarranted; doctors determine if a person’s organs are suitable for donation based on criteria besides age.

Organ donation is a big decision, and the idea of subjecting a loved one to an elective surgery  after they have died may seem unimaginable. On the other hand, time is usually of the essence, so you may be called upon to make a choice while you are still in a very challenging frame of mind. Take a deep breath, and think of what your loved one would have wanted. In your heart, you almost certainly know what is right for them. 

This is a very personal decision, and nobody can make it for you. If you do decide to opt for donation, take heart in knowing that your loved one has given someone in need an immeasurable gift, and that your love for them will live on not only in you but also in the life of a grateful stranger.

You may be eligible for free bereavement support. Empathy can help with everything from funeral planning to estate administration, with step-by-step guidance and real-time expert support. Many people get free premium access to Empathy as a benefit with their life insurance claim. We partner with New York Life, Guardian Life Insurance Company, Bestow, Lemonade, and other leading carriers. When you make your life insurance claim, talk to your representative about whether Empathy is a benefit they offer.