Well, It’s Almost Halloween…

… but still, this one gets pretty dark. Proceed at the risk of your discomfort.

An old girlfriend of mine once gave me a pin that read, “I’m donating my body to science fiction.” And of course, organ and tissue donation for transplantation is one of the marvels of our era — I know a couple of people who benefited from cadaver parts that were implanted in knee surgeries, for example, and we all know about the folks who have received hearts, kidneys, and other necessary organs. (And it inspired a terrific Monty Python bit, after all.)

But what about the folks who used to simply be described as donating their bodies “to science?” What happens to their bodies? Well, in more than a few cases, the bodies are donated to firms that supply educational institutions, medical supply and testing facilities. The firms, however, charge for their products, which are sold either whole or as, well, piecework. For example, at least one company charges $300 for a human head. Parts that aren’t used, or that outlive outlast their usefulness, are cremated, with the remains often returned to the deceased’s family, friends, or whoever the deceased requests.

Why do I know this? (Besides the fact that it explains the refrigerator in my office.) Well, Reuters has recently investigated the industry, including companies the journalists call “body brokers.” And some of these companies do quite well. They get their materials essentially for free, receiving them in many cases from folks who like the idea of a free cremation for their remains, or those of their dearly departed. Indeed, Reuters reports that the firms frequently arrange with funeral homes, hospitals, and hospices to offer referrals, and that a significant number of bodies are donated by indigent people or their families — folks who may not be able to afford a more traditional funeral arrangement. At this point, questions of exploitation may arise, but questions they’ll remain: unlike the transplantation business — which is highly regulated — the non-transplant tissue business isn’t covered by law in 46 of the 50 states.

The three-part series raises some interesting points. At least one will be familiar to a certain subset of libertarians:

Rob Montemorra, the former chief of the FBI’s national health care fraud unit, says the practice of selling donated bodies is legal. But if anyone is going to profit, Montemorra said, it should be the relatives of the deceased.

“The families don’t realize that a body has tremendous value,” the former FBI official said. “Everybody makes money but the people who provide the raw material.”

It was also interesting to note that at least one of the body dealers seemed something less than aggressive about checking out buyers, which is how a spine and two heads were delivered to a Reuters reporter whose address was a rent-an-office in Minneapolis, the deals having been conducted by e-mail.

But the thing that caught my attention in several places in the article was mention that bodies and their parts were sometimes “leased or rented.” Because I’m the kind of person I am, I envisioned an office conversation after a return:

“What’s the depreciation on a ’58 torso?”

“Does it have the leather interior?”

“Well, it does now.”

A tip of the Mondo Mortarboard to Lee Borchers, via the Book of Faces.

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About profmondo

Dad, husband, mostly free individual, medievalist, writer, and drummer. "Gladly wolde he lerne and gladly teche."
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4 Responses to Well, It’s Almost Halloween…

  1. Robbo says:

    Hmm. My brother went to med school at MUSC. When he showed me his cadaver, he said that they were all donated to the school. He also said that before the students were let loose in Anatomy 101 or whatever it was, the school held a memorial service for those who were about to go under the knife. I’ve always thought that was a very nice thing.

    • profmondo says:

      I suspect that’s not uncommon at major institutions. The Reuters article mentions that one of the companies had lost a client — an offshore medical school.

      There was also once an urban legend that you could sell your body to Harvard Med. The story was that you’d get your cash advance and they’d tattoo “Property of Harvard U” on the sole of your foot, so that when the time came, the undertakers would know where to send the mortal coil. See: https://www.snopes.com/college/medical/testicle.asp

  2. It’s not entirely low overhead…there’s a lot of costs to bear in terms of transport, code compliance and so forth, and cremation of the unused remains isn’t cheap. Plus, it’s unpleasant work with (no pun intended) a lot of turnover for the delivery guys who often get pulled into all sorts of nasty situations depending on the conditions. I can see why they charge a fair amount for it.

    • profmondo says:

      Meanwhile, I just noticed today that “HR” is apparently shorthand for “Human Remains”, as well as the more common “Human Resources.” This makes me wonder if the hiring office is called “HR Squared.” And I’m now suspicious of HR Block as well.

      More seriously, thanks for the input!

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