Background Many individuals are unwilling to become posthumous organ donors, resulting in a disparity between the supply and demand for organ transplants. A meta-synthesis of the qualitative literature was therefore conducted to determine how the general public views posthumous organ donation. Methods Three online databases (PubMed, PsycINFO, Scopus) were searched for articles published between January 1990 and May 2008 using the following search terms: organ donation, qualitative, interview. Eligibility criteria were: examination of beliefs about posthumous organ donation; utilization of a qualitative research design; and publication in an English peer-reviewed journal. Exclusion criteria were examining how health professionals or family members of organ donors viewed posthumous organ donation. Grounded theory was used to identify the beliefs emerging from this literature. Thematically-related beliefs were then grouped to form themes. Results 27 articles from 24 studies met the inclusion criteria and were reviewed. The major themes identified were: religion, death, altruism, personal relevance, the body, the family, medical professionals, and transplant recipients. An altruistic motivation to help others emerged as the most commonly identified motivator for becoming an organ donor, although feeling a sense of solidarity with the broader community and believing that donated organs are put to good use may be important preconditions for the emergence of this motivation. The two most commonly identified barriers were the need to maintain bodily integrity to safeguard progression into the afterlife and the unethical recovery of organs by medical professionals. The influence of stakeholder groups on willingness to become an organ donor was also found to vary by the level of control that each stakeholder group exerted over the donation recovery process and their perceived conflict of interest in wanting organ donation to proceed. Conclusions These findings afford insights into how individuals perceive posthumous organ donation.