Post-Cremation Use of Implants and Prosthetics

Hands machinery governing prosthetic

As Baby Boomers age, American society must adapt to new challenges presented by this large demographic.  One benefit is that aging is seen as less of a decline in quality of life. Medical technologies such as prosthetics and implants allow older adults to remain active and healthy longer than previous generations have.

However, one challenge associated with these technologies is what to do with them when they are no longer needed.  Many elderly people have these implants or prosthetics in their bodies until the end of their lives.

Implants and prosthetics cremation can present problems for a variety of reasons, but the good news is that some of the materials in these medical devices, and often the devices themselves, can find a new life through donation and recycling.

Recycling Prosthetics

Prosthetics generally refers to artificial body part replacements. The most common are for limbs – arms, legs, feet, and even hands.  Many even have electronics to help the prosthetic respond the way a natural body part would.

Such prosthetics are typically fitted individually for the person using them, and current United States law prohibits the reuse of any prosthetic that has been touching the skin of its user – usually where the part has been fitted to the person’s joint – but that doesn’t mean that the entire prosthetic must be discarded when the person who used it has passed away.

Other countries, particularly ones that have been ravaged by war, have a great need for prosthetic limbs. A number of organizations take donated prosthetics and refurbish them for use by overseas victims of violence and landmines who would otherwise not have access to such technology. Generally, the electronics are removed first because the new users might not have the ability to maintain them, but sometimes even the electronic parts can be reused in other applications.

Recycling Medical Implants

Medical implants present more of a challenge because, as the name implies, they are implanted inside the person who uses them.  After death, they can remain in the deceased’s body for burial, but often must be removed for cremation because of the hazards they present when subjected to high heat. Electronic implants such as pacemakers can even explode during the cremation process.

Like prosthetics, implants cannot currently be reused within the United States, but projects such as the University of Michigan’s My Heart Your Heart collect pacemakers that would otherwise end up in landfills. Cleaning them is a difficult process, but once they have been sterilized and shipped out, they can continue to sustain the life of a grateful new user.  Families and funeral homes usually need to specifically request that a pacemaker is removed, but it is worth the effort.

The implants and prosthetics cremation process doesn’t have to be a wasteful one. These medical devices can be reused in developing countries, and even when that isn’t possible, the component parts can often be broken down into recyclable materials. Many families are happy to know that a device that kept their loved one active and healthy can go on to do the same for another person.

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