Body Brokers: Inside America's Underground Trade in Human Remains
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“You are a little soul carrying around a corpse.” —Epictetus
“Wherever the corpse is, there the vultures will follow.” —Matthew 24:28
Body Brokers is an audacious, disturbing, and compellingly written investigative exposé of the lucrative business of procuring, buying, and selling human cadavers and body parts.
Every year human corpses meant for anatomy classes, burial, or cremation find their way into the hands of a shadowy group of entrepreneurs who profit by buying and selling human remains. While the government has controls on organs and tissue meant for transplantation, these “body brokers” capitalize on the myriad other uses for dead bodies that receive no federal oversight whatsoever: commercial seminars to introduce new medical gadgetry; medical research studies and training courses; and U.S. Army land-mine explosion tests. A single corpse used for these purposes can generate up to $10,000.
As journalist Annie Cheney found while reporting on this subject over the course of three years, when there’s that much money to be made with no federal regulation, there are all sorts of shady (and fascinating) characters who are willing to employ questionable practices—from deception and outright theft—to acquire, market and distribute human bodies and parts. In Michigan and New York she discovers funeral directors who buy corpses from medical schools and supply the parts to surgical equipment companies and associations of surgeons. In California, she meets a crematorium owner who sold the body parts of people he was supposed to cremate, generating hundreds of thousands of dollars in profits. In Florida, she attends a medical conference in a luxury hotel, where fresh torsos are delivered in Igloo coolers and displayed on gurneys in a room normally used for banquets. “That torso that you’re living in right now is just flesh and bones to me. To me, it’s a product,” says the New Jersey-based broker presiding over the torsos. Tracing the origins of body brokering from the “resurrectionists” of the nineteenth century to the entrepreneurs of today, Cheney chronicles how demand for cadavers has long driven unscrupulous funeral home, crematorium and medical school personnel to treat human bodies as commodities.
Gripping, often chilling, and sure to cause a reexamination of the American way of death, Body Brokers is both a captivating work of first-person reportage and a surprising inside look at a little-known aspect of the “death care” world.
hand shaking. A trip to the Trump resort, with its promise of Florida sunshine, luxury rooms, an oceanfront view, and fresh torsos, seemed like a perfect way to build his confidence. The surgeon had a partner, who looked sick and pale. Before the lab and after eating a lunch of cold cuts, he had excused himself to take a walk outside. I watched him as he paced around the balcony. “I still haven’t gotten over the cadavers from medical school,” he said. Nonetheless, he managed to perform his part
Michael Brown’s crematorium, Schultz and Brown’s conversation about the roller hockey team veered off course. Schultz confessed that he couldn’t afford to buy the gas station that he’d looked at that morning. Michael Brown said suddenly, “Why don’t you go into business with me?” Schultz was startled. What business? he wondered. The crematorium or the funeral home? “What do you mean?” he asked, trying to be cautious around this very successful man. But already he knew that he badly wanted to
or three other places—it was just the sort of thing that would happen with Dad.” Charley would have probably enjoyed a trip to Vail, but his family was desperate to get his body back. “Something limbic, something primordial comes up,” his daughter Jane said. “We had to keep at it until we got him home.” Fortunately, they got to Charley in time. He was waiting peacefully in cold storage in Detroit. June Reynolds was grateful to have her husband back. But she’s still suspicious of the whole
offers. I didn’t intend to write about transplantable tissue, which is regulated by the FDA. But I discovered disturbing connections between this business and the underground brokers supplying body parts for research and education. I found a similar culture of secrecy in both fields, especially where profits are concerned. Where I found connections, I wrote about them. What follows is the story of what I found when I immersed myself in the underground cadaver trade: a macabre world populated by
luck. Here he was, owner of the best and soon to be biggest crematorium in southern California in a room full of potential body-parts clients. The second night, at a formal dinner hosted by IMET, Brown got to meet Agostino “Augie” Perna. “Augie was real quiet, and he thanked me profusely,” Brown said. Perna, he noticed, spent his money freely. “Augie was your quintessential jet-setter. He always wore a white T-shirt and cowboy boots, and he always carried $1,000 cash. I knew that if I was to