How much for your head? Unregulated US brokers make killing on donated bodies
Dead human bodies are critical to medical training, physicians and researchers say. And thousands of Americans are happy to donate their meat suits for the greater good after they're gone. But in the US, a body’s trip from a morgue to a medical school or lab can be gruesome, shady, and expensive. Some don’t make it at all. Instead, bits and pieces of donated loved ones—sometimes disassembled with chainsaws—end up decomposing in parking lots, forgotten in unplugged freezers, and tossed unceremoniously into incinerators.
And law enforcement can do nothing—there are few to no laws that regulate the grim industry of human body brokering. Grieving families, who are often misled and in the dark about the fate of their loved ones, can be left horrified.
That’s all according to a new investigative report by Reuters, which tracked the practices and pricing of dozens of such brokers across the country. They found that the lucrative business includes a bloody splattering of practices—some ethical, lots not—that can bring in millions to even the most shoddy and small brokers.
Basically, what happens is that these companies approach dying people or families of the recently deceased, usually through a funeral home connection. The companies give emotional sales pitches to convince people to donate—for free—a human body and get a deal on funeral costs. The companies then take the bodies to some type of unregulated facility where they’re kept whole or dismembered and sold—for profit—to medical training facilities, research labs, and other buyers.
Whole bodies can go for anywhere from $3,000 to $5,000, and sometimes as high as $10,000. But it’s often more profitable to sell chunks. A torso with legs can go for $3,750, a head may go for $500, and a spine may set a buyer back $300. Companies claim that the prices simply cover their operating fees, but documents obtained by Reuters show that many companies see bodies and parts as commodities.
There are few laws governing how this whole process should play out from beginning to end. Bodies can be butchered with proper surgical tools or with chainsaws. They can be responsibly scanned for diseases and surgical implants or not. They can be properly stored in freezers or left out to decompose. If parts go unsold, they can be carelessly incinerated. And family members may not know about any of this.
Last year, Reuters reported that a body broker in Arizona sold 20 bodies to the US Army, which used them for blast experiments. The family members had no idea, and some thought their loved ones’ remains were being used to help study diseases, like Alzheimer’s. Some had specifically noted that they didn't want the bodies to be used in military trials. They learned of the blast experiments from the Reuters report.
“The current state of affairs is a free-for-all,” Angela McArthur told Reuters. McArthur directs the body-donation program at the University of Minnesota Medical School and formerly chaired Minnesota’s anatomical donation commission. “We are seeing similar problems to what we saw with grave-robbers centuries ago… I don’t know if I can state this strongly enough: what they are doing is profiting from the sale of humans.”
Todd Olson, an anatomy and structural biology professor at Yeshiva University’s Albert Einstein College of Medicine, echoed the statement. He emphasized that there are no consistent state or federal laws governing how these brokers do business. “Nobody is accounting for anything, nobody is watching. We regulate heads of lettuce in this country more than we regulate heads of bodies.”
The daughter of a New Mexico man who donated his body to Albuquerque broker Bio Care said she and her father were told the body would be used to help train doctors and that she would receive some cremated remains. Instead, she received a jar of sand—not ashes—and learned that Bio Care was in the body part-selling business. Her father’s head was among a pile of parts recovered later by authorities in a medical incinerator. The parts appeared to have been cut by a “coarse cutting instrument, such as a chainsaw,” a police detective wrote in an affidavit.
Authorities charged Bio Care owner Paul Montano with fraud but later dropped the case, saying that no laws were broken.
“It’s not OK,” said Kari Brandenburg, a former district attorney in Albuquerque. “But it doesn’t make it a crime. There’s no criminal law that says this is wrong.”