BACKGROUND: In recent years the Netherlands has witnessed a steep increase in the number of bodies donated for medical research and training. To explore this upward trend and motives for donation, a survey was conducted among registered body donors in the database of the Department of Anatomy at the University Medical Center of Groningen (UMCG). METHODS: In November 2008, postal questionnaires were sent to 996 people enrolled at the UMCG body donor database. The present study focuses on motives for donation and social background characteristics of the body donors. FINDINGS: Registered donors responded quickly and the survey response rate was high (76%). The mean age of respondents was 69 years and the majority described themselves as Dutch (98%) and non-church affiliated (79%). One quarter (25%) of the respondents are/were health care professionals and 11% involved in education. Principal factor analysis revealed three dimensions underlying ten different motivations for body donation: a desire to be useful after death, a negative attitude towards funerals and expression of gratitude. Despite the current economic recession only 8% of respondents are prompted by money motives to bequeath their bodies. CONCLUSIONS: The majority of motives for body donation stem from the wish to be useful after death. However, the present survey suggests that body donation is more than an altruistic act; people are also motivated by personal benefit. Results of our survey contradict the notion that body donation stems from loneliness. Many donors have a supportive social network and meaningful social relationships. People moreover propagate body donation within their social networks.