How to Preserve a Human Organ in a Jar (Includes Photos, You’ve Been Warned)

How to Preserve a Human Organ in a Jar (Includes Photos, You’ve Been Warned)
So, you want to preserve a human organ? Image: Alice Clarke/Gizmodo Australia

Around two months ago, I had to have a hysterectomy due to my uterus being packed full of fibroid tumours. It was basically a tumour piñata. There are a lot of ways to deal with having major surgery and the removal of an organ you had hopes of one day using for its intended purpose. The first step, of course, is to eat a lot of chips while watching trashy TV (I have a lot of feelings about Chrishell on Selling Sunset now). The second step, obviously, was to request my uterus so I could preserve it in a jar as a decorative item.

In case you’re in a similar position, with an organ surplus to your requirements for survival removed by a healthcare professional, here’s what you do next.

Before we begin, I want to give you the heads up that there will be some pictures of a human organ. While it looks significantly less gross than you’d think and very different to what I expected, I would recommend waiting until after you finish your meal to read (particularly if you’re eating roast meat).

Step 1: Request your medical waste

Not all surgeons are going to be up for giving you your tumour/ uterus/ kidney or whatever. It’s against the policy of some hospitals, too. But if you, like me, are lucky enough to get a surgeon who thinks this sounds like a cool and fun project (and gives you a USB key with photos and a video of the hysterectomy unprompted), then it’s actually really easy. My hospital had a policy of waiting 28 days to release the specimen just in case they needed to do any further tests for cancer (you’ll understand why soon when you see the number of tumours).

After waiting a long five weeks, I got a call from my surgeon’s office saying it was ready to be picked up. The nurse at the office helpfully drained the large bucket of toxic formalin and rinsed off the uterus, to reduce my contact with the dangerous chemicals. There were also two separate specimen jars containing a tiny tumour each, suspended in formalin.

Surprisingly, you don’t need to refrigerate it because it’s usually pretty well preserved.

Step 2: Put on old clothes

When dealing with a bunch of chemicals and medical waste, it’s best not to wear clothes you like just in case you spill, or you find this more traumatic than you expect (a hysterectomy is surprisingly emotional). For some people, this is a very cathartic experience. For others, it can be upsetting. You really don’t know which way it’ll go until you open the lid.

Step 3: Gather everything you need (including human organ/s)

Preserving a human organ: A person with orange hair in old clothes gesturing at a white bucket, two empty jars and some methylated spirits bottles.
Pretty much all you’ll need. Image: Alice Clarke/Gizmodo Australia

Because you’re dealing with formalin, you’ll need nitrile gloves and a surgical mask, and maybe also open the windows and turn on an air purifier and extractor fan. Because mine was pre-rinsed quite well, it wasn’t too bad, but your mileage may vary.

For the actual organ decanting, you’ll need methylated spirits, jars of various sizes (my dad got me two large ones from the health food store), and your organ. You could also use something like a pig’s heart, if you’re just wanting a decorative item, but they really don’t look that cool with the blood drained.

Step 4: Open the bucket and see how you feel about it

Preserving a human organ: A bucket full of chopped white meat (aka my uterus after a hysterectomy)
It’s actually way more than it looks in this photo. Probably a bit more than a litre of meat? The bucket is roughly 1.8kgs. Image: Alice Clarke/Gizmodo Australia

This again depends on the size of your organ, or whatever you’re preserving. In the case of smaller tumours, they go in clear plastic containers, so you have some idea of what to expect. My uterus came back in a white plastic bucket with a blue lid, and so I didn’t know what I was dealing with until I eventually got up the courage to open it six days after I got it.

I had been hoping that it would be fully intact so it would look cooler in the jar, but it just came in slices. I’m guessing that’s because they needed to test each tumour to be sure there wasn’t anything bad going on, and because the fibroids had grown through the walls and lining, there was no clean way to get to them.

I was surprised by how white our organs are without the blood, and how hard it felt. Also, by just how much there was. My surgeon told me a uterus is normally the size of a baby’s fist, and this was well over 1L of muscle issue and tumour, the photo doesn’t really do justice to the scale. It’s quite a confronting thing to see and touch.

In terms of how it felt: my dad will frequently roast the fattiest lamb he can find and then leave it in the fridge uncovered for a week (I don’t know how he’s still alive either). The uterus chunks felt like that. Dry and spongy, yet solid in that way only old meat can be. It also looks like old roast grey meat chicken and squid. I cancelled the roast I had been planning on making that night.

Preserving a human organ: A ball of fibroid tumour, roughly the size of a baseball, post hysterectomy
One of the bigger, more intact ones. I no longer feel like chicken tonight. Image: Alice Clarke/Gizmodo Australia

It was interesting to see the parts with sutures, presumably placed to stem bleeding during my five and a half hour half open/half laparoscopic hysterectomy. Seeing the scale of the uterus certainly explained why I’d struggled so much to get a flatter stomach no matter what I did, and why my periods were more like haemorrhages, losing cups of blood.

I’d been feeling guilty for creating such a fuss advocating to get the hysterectomy, spending so much money on private surgery (I still haven’t managed to get an appointment in the public system despite been classed as urgent months ago) and taking time off work to recover. I don’t feel guilty anymore.

Step 5: Put human organ/s in jar

Preserving a human organ: A tumour in a jar
It’s in a jar now. Image: Alice Clarke/Gizmodo Australia

For you, this might mean putting the whole thing in the jar and being done. But if your organ is as chopped as mine, this step means sifting through the remains and looking for the coolest bit. I did suggest my wife and I put it together like a 3D puzzle and I could sew it together. My wife could best be described as unenthused by that idea.

Preserving a human organ: The tumour from the jar held over the bucket of uterus post hysterectomy.
Here’s how it looked with its friends. Image: Alice Clarke/Gizmodo Australia

I chose, not the largest tumour, but one of the more intact chunks as a small memento, because the biggest tumour was cut in half. I’m still considering whether I’ll use a toothpick to hold the two halves together and put it in its own jar, but that requires its own mental preparation.

Unfortunately, because I was preserving something smaller, the jars my dad got me were much too large. So, instead, my wife washed an old sauerkraut jar from the recycling. We’ll use the big jars for pasta or rice.

Step 6: Fill with methylated spirits

Pouring methylated spirited into the jar
Image: Alice Clarke/Gizmodo Australia

The last thing you want is to watch the natural process of decay. You’ll still get that, but suspending it in alcohol will slow that process so you can get a good year or two with the organ. Fill your jar almost to the top, making sure to completely cover all tissue.

Step 7: Close jar tightly

I cannot stress enough how tightly you should close this jar. Your organ might not smell bad now, but it will. Also, you don’t want the chemical smell of methylated spirits. Close it tight. Consider taping it.

Step 8: Add decorations

You might want to write a plaque or sticky label, or maybe wrap it in fairy lights. This is your opportunity to regain control over a situation that has largely been out of your hands up until this point. Arts and crafts don’t get you back the months you lost to illness, but they do provide an outlet while getting you a cool decorative item.

Step 9: Find the right shelf for your human organ/s

The jar is on a shelf, surrounded by action figures
Image: Alice Clarke/Gizmodo Australia

I’ve put mine on a shelf in my home office that is in my Zoom background. It means I don’t have to look at it all the time, and random colleagues can entertain themselves trying to guess what’s in the jar. But put yours somewhere that seems right for you; a glass case, the bathroom, in a box in a cupboard so you don’t have to see it all the time but it’s there to be visited. Just make sure it’s somewhere it can’t fall off, because this would be a weird mess to clean up.

And, there you have it, a human organ in a jar.