The Horrifying Truths About Donating Dead Bodies To Science
When we think about donating our bodies to science (and who doesn't, several times a day?), we imagine teary medical students whispering "Thank you" as they respectfully handle a perfectly preserved deceased volunteer. Unfortunately, the reality isn't always quite that dignified, mostly thanks to the large and largely unregulated industry of "body part brokerage." And if you thought that sentence was the darkest thing in this article, oh boy, you have no idea.
The Military Can Buy You To Use For Experiments And "Blast Testing"
When Jim Stauffer donated the remains of his mother, Doris, he did so with the understanding that they'd be used for Alzheimer's research. Now, we're not aware of the exact steps involved in preparing a body to be used in Alzheimer's studies, but we're pretty sure "Strap the dead person to a chair and place a powerful explosive underneath" ain't it.
It turns out that instead of being studied by neurologists, poor Doris was sold to the military, which blew her up as part of an experiment "measuring the damage caused by roadside bombs." Later, her son received all that was left of her: 6 oz of ashes. We understand cremation is never a pleasant process, but this was a rather extreme way of going about it.
And this wasn't a onetime mix-up. In 2004, seven bodies donated to Tulane Medical School were given to a brokerage company, which sold them to the military for $25,000-$30,000 apiece. They were all blown up to test footwear designed to protect against landmines (we're guessing it didn't work very well). "Don't let the military kablooey my corpse" isn't something most people think they have to specify before they croak, yet this has happened even in cases where the deceased did exactly that. Like Kurt Hollstein, a disgruntled veteran who explicitly denied permission for his remains to be used by the military before he died, only to end up in an Army experiment anyway. Because dying of cancer wasn't bad enough.
To be fair to the military, it appears they were unaware that they were using corpses without proper authorization. As of August 2019, dozens of families have filed suit against one body broker, Biological Resource Center (BRC), which made millions of dollars selling donated corpses. That's because ...
There's An Industry Making Huge Money Selling Poor People's Donated Bodies
Donating your body directly to a university's medical school is neither cost- nor hassle-free. It's not as easy as asking a buddy to drop off your vacant shell at a college's main entrance the next time he's going that way. That's why so many people end up leaving their bodies to a broker, who will take care of all that stuff for you out of the kindness of their hearts ... and in exchange for a massive profit.
Reuters conducted a long-term, in-depth investigation of the body brokerage business, and determined that these companies are making big bucks selling corpses, mostly poor people. Brokers often recruit donations through funeral homes or hospice care, and it's not hard to grasp how a low-income family that's exhausted their savings on medical bills could find the prospect of a "free cremation" appealing. Plus, they're helping science! As it turns out, they're only padding the pockets of these brokers with their loved one's remains. Sorry about the mental image.
As you might know if you've ever tried it, it's technically illegal to sell a dead body (even your own). But opportunistic companies don't let "technically illegal" get in the way of mad profit. What they officially charge buyers are "preparation" fees, or "matching" and "placement" surcharges. And while that sounds like chump change, these companies do this to the tune of $100,000-$200,000 per corpse. They are literally monetizing tragedies.
Angela McArthur, who directs the (legitimate and reputable) body donation program at the University of Minnesota Medical School, likens today's body trade to old-fashioned grave robbing, saying, "I don't know if I can state this strongly enough. What they are doing is profiting from the sale of humans." Or parts of humans, anyway. See ...
In Order To Be Sold, You Will Almost Certainly Be Hacked Into Various Parts And Sent ... Wherever
Body brokerage is a business, and the object is to make as much money as possible. And the sad fact is that you're generally worth more in pieces than as a whole. So you'll be cut up and sold for parts like an old car. Exactly like your grocery store's butcher, body brokers chop you into cuts of meat and sell them for varying amounts depending on how choice they are.
And there's not much point in keeping all those bits in one place. For example, a grieving widow named Linda Hayes honored her husband's dying wish that his body be donated for medical research. But when she tried to find out where his remains ended up, she learned he was chopped up like some medieval traitor and scattered to the four corners of the Earth. First his body was "leased to a nurse anesthetist seminar in Chicago," then they sold his joints to two different companies, and nobody's sure what happened to the rest of him. That, or it was something so awful that "We lost him" sounded better.
So what are they doing with all those loose parts? Oh, lots of things. Back in 2013, 27 shoulders were sent to an orthopedic workshop in Florida. In 2015, a carpal tunnel presentation in Virginia got five arms. How much does your pimp get from your prostituted remains? $500 for your head. $350 for one of your feet. Even your fingernails are worth something to someone. But at least you can be certain that all parties involved will treat your parts with the utmost respect, right? ... Uh, right?
They'll Mangle You With Chainsaws And Sew Your Head To Another Body For Kicks
Once a buyer decides they want a piece of you (literally), how do they split your body into salable chunks? As you've probably sussed out by now, the process is grisly, devoid of dignity, and probably involves whatever electrical saw the closest hardware store had on sale.
When the FBI raided Biological Resource Center's facility in Phoenix, they found "a cooler filled with penises," "a bucket of heads, arms, and legs," and "pools of human blood and bodily fluids." Officials also noted that the bodies "had been hacked up with chain saws or hack saws," and that a female head had been sewn onto a male torso and hung on the wall like the most horrifying office decoration ever. An agent actually used the words "in a Frankenstein manner" when describing BRC, which are not words you want on a Yelp review.
On Saturdays, BRC's "lab technician" taught college "interns" how to dismember corpses. One intern graphically recalled being selected to cut off an elderly woman's head with a reciprocating saw, because she'd "never cut off a head before," but all the others had (within a medical context, we hope). One week, the lesson involved pulling fingernails off corpses with pliers. That same lab tech also created a gruesome "instructional video" that demonstrated how to carve out someone's spine with a Sawzall. But hey, failing a saw, there are other options. Vice founder Shane Smith witnessed firsthand a different company's "procurement" process, including the 33 mallet whacks it took to chisel a woman's head from her body. And this was after that company had cleaned up its act.
All in all, the investigators who raided BRC sized over ten tons of frozen human remains, including one bag that held bits from "at least" 36 different people. If there's one consolation, it's that the raid spared those people from the further indignities that awaited them ...
Your Dismembered Bits Might End Up On Display In A Hotel Ballroom Somewhere
While investigating the body part trade, Reuters reporter Brian Grow wanted to see precisely how difficult it would be for your average Joe to purchase human remains. Using his real name and email account and openly naming his employer, Grow was able to purchase a cervical spine and two human heads with less hassle than it takes to buy a case of beer. He was even able to track down the spine's original owner, whose parents were too poor to bury him and couldn't read the donation consent form they signed. Reuters paid for the spine to be cremated and returned to the parents, but we're guessing most buyers aren't that considerate. You could end up as part of some Hannibal-esque art display somewhere, for all these companies care.
And if your remains do get sold for something legitimate, like a medical workshop, it's entirely possible they'll end up somewhere you've only ever dreamed about going. That's right, you (or pieces of you) might take the vacation of your life after you've died. A group of 70 doctors worked on cadavers in the ballroom of the Four Seasons Hotel in Los Angeles, practicing spinal pain control techniques in the same room that's hosted thousands of wedding receptions. The ballrooms at Disney's Yacht and Beach Club Resorts in Orlando hosted another so-called "cadaver lab," where doctors practiced nerve blocks while blood and bodily fluids leaked onto the ballroom carpet. All this while guests and hotel staff went about their business right outside.
So if you're some type of extreme exhibitionist and wish to be seen nude by as many people as possible, even after death, then we fully recommend donating your body to a broker. For everyone else ... maybe start saving for that burial now? Or simply don't die. That's what we're counting on.
For more, check out How Humans Will Eventually Beat Death - People Watching No. 4:
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