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The Stuff of Nightmares

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The World recession has had many unexpected and sad consequences, some of which will remain with us for many years to come. Unemployment, poverty and home repossessions are all topics that we are familiar with. However, it seems that the dead also have not escaped the ravages of the recession.
In Spain, as in many other countries, there are facilities for leaving one’s body to medical science upon death. Some may wish to leave their bodies to enable their organs to be used for transplant purposes, others may wish to donate their body to medical science for use by medical students, as well as furthering the cause of conquering many diseases. Both intentions should be applauded, and is an option than many retired expats may consider.

Sadly, due to the high cost of funerals, the option of leaving bodies to medical science has increased in recent years, and particularly following the recession. I know of a number of retired expats who have done this in order for those left behind to escape funeral costs when the time comes. Like many people, I had always assumed that when the medical institution finished with the body, there is a simple funeral and it is cremated in a dignified way, and paid for by the receiving institution. Apparently, this is not the case.

A major Spanish newspaper has recently discovered hundreds of dead bodies, originally donated to science, that have been left at room temperature in the basement of a Spanish university for many years. In the basement of one Madrid University are an estimated 250 corpses, which are leftovers from students’ experiments.

The newspaper described it as “the stuff of nightmares”, a genuine chamber of horrors, publishing photographs that displayed lines of "mummified" corpses lined up on a shelf. Staff at the university commented that the arrangements were in order, although admitted that some of the bodies had been stored for "up to five years."

Apparently, the member of staff who operated the incinerating oven took early retirement and the university was unable to advertise the position, because the unions said that the oven was in a poor condition and emitted poisonous gases. Later, the university commented that a solution had been found, and that a funeral company would start removing the bodily remains.

Although the Spanish Anatomy Society has guidelines on the storage of bodies donated to science, there is no formal legal framework. Spain’s Health Department commented that its laws only dealt with burials, autopsies and the transfer of bodies, while the Education Department said universities were independent institutions outside of their control.  

The university receives more than fifty bodies each year as more people donate their bodies to medical science as a way of avoiding funeral costs. However, it is clear that the donors and their families are unclear what happens to the bodies once they are of no further use. This is certainly an area that expats should clarify before considering donations to medical science, together with under what circumstances the body could be refused when death occurs, leaving families with unintended and unexpected funeral costs.


This information is given in good faith and is intended for general guidance and support only. Different rules may apply to different regions in Spain. Regulations change regularly and so, if in doubt, always consult a professional.
If you enjoyed this article, take a look at Barrie’s websites: and or read his latest book, ‘Footprints in the Sand’ (ISBN: 9780995602717). Available in paperback, as well as Kindle editions. Protection Status © Barrie Mahoney