Written on behalf of Brian S. Kabateck
February 9, 2018
Donating a deceased loved one’s body to science can provide much needed medical training while the organs can be used to save lives. Thousands of Americans are more than willing to sign up to donate their bodies for research and other medical purposes after they’re gone. But in the U.S., a body’s trip from a morgue to a medical school or lab can be gruesome and shady. Some don’t make it at all; instead bits and pieces of donated loved ones end up decomposing in parking lots, body parts might be rented out, and some parts end up being tossed into incinerators. This happens when certain companies approach dying people or families of the recently deceased, usually through a funeral home connection. The companies then convince people or their families to donate a human body for free, usually by promising that they will cover all the funeral expenses. The companies then take the bodies to an unregulated facility where they’re kept whole or dismembered with chainsaws and sold for profit to medical training facilities, research labs, and other buyers.
Body brokers or non-transplant tissue banks, are distinct from the organ and tissue transplant industry, which the U.S. government regulates. Currently, there are no federal laws restricting the sale of cadavers or body parts for use in research or education. Few state laws provide any oversight and almost anyone is able to dissect and sell human body parts. In return for a body, brokers will typically cremate a portion of the donor at no charge and send the ashes to family members. But in one case reported by Reuters, a family donated their father’s body to science with the promise of receiving part of his ashes, only to find out that they only sent the family a jar full of sand. By offering free cremation, brokers appeal to low-income families at their most vulnerable. Many have drained their savings paying for a loved one’s medical treatment and can’t afford a traditional funeral, so when body brokers approach a family with no means to bury their loved one, this could sound like their best option.
Despite the industry’s critically important role in medicine, no national registry of body brokers is available. Many can operate anonymously, making deals to obtain cadavers and sell the parts. When a body is donated, few states provide rules governing dismemberment or use, or offer any rights to a donor’s next of kin. Bodies and parts can be bought, sold and leased. This can make it difficult to track what becomes of the bodies of donors, let alone ensure that the bodies are handled with dignity. In most cases, those to whom we entrust our deceased loved ones tend to make sure that they’re laid to rest safely. Most morgue workers, funeral directors, and crematorium operators keep careful track of each body. Many care for them as they would their own deceased relatives. Still, body brokers have been known to go to funeral homes in order to have access to body parts in order to sell.
There are few laws governing how this whole process should play out from beginning to end. Bodies can be dissected with proper surgical tools or they could be dismembered with chainsaws. They can be responsibly scanned for diseases and surgical implants or they may not be. 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, especially without consistent laws or a clear oversight authority. It’s important for people to educate themselves on this topic to avoid their deceased loved ones from going into the wrong hands.
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