The New York Times
Body Brokers: Inside America's Underground Trade in Human Remainsby Annie Cheney
“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/i>/i>… See more details below
“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.
The New York Times
—Society of Professional Journalists 2005 Featuring Reporting Award, judges’ citation
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Read an Excerpt
Joyce Zamazanuk knew that her son was dying. She knew it when the nurses quietly wheeled Jim to a private room on the seventh ﬂoor of the hospital in San Diego. His new room had a bed, a metal chair, and an oxygen tube, but little else. Outside, few visitors wandered the halls. A hush hung over the nursing station. Joyce thought, This must be where they bring the sick patients to die.
Six days in the hospital had done little to help Jim. AIDS had ravaged his body. The tumor that engulfed his lungs appeared larger in each new CAT scan. Always slender, Jim Farrelly, forty-ﬁve, was now reedlike beneath the cotton sheets and blankets. His thick brown hair had thinned to a soft, downy fur. He had trouble talking. Death by asphyxiation was certain.
Joyce wondered what awaited her beloved son: Would he feel pain in the moment of his passing? How much longer before he left her?
Joyce had been just seventeen years old when Jim, her third son, was born; the two had always been close. Even as a baby, Jim was gentle in his manners and feminine in his tastes. He wanted to do whatever his mother did. Unlike his macho brothers, Jim would learn to cook and to sew. Later, when his sister was born, he styled her hair and embroidered ﬂowers on her clothing. At school, the other children called him all the usual names: sissy and mama’s boy.
But Jim was a scrapper, tougher, his mother always said, than any of his tough brothers. When they lost Jim’s father, it was Jim who stepped in and took care of Joyce. Jim planned his father’s funeral. He bought the Christmas presents. He was a comfort to his mother. When he grew up and settled in San Diego, Joyce often came to stay. She and Jim shared their sorrows and secrets.
AIDS was one secret Jim had tried to keep. When he was diagnosed with HIV in 1994, he lied to his mother and said, “The doctor just found a polyp. Nothing for you to worry about.” Joyce was relieved. But within a year, the virus had progressed to full-blown AIDS.
Jim tried to prepare his family for his death. He knew it was coming–he’d seen many of his friends die–and so he made sure everything was ready. With the little money that he had, he bought a cemetery plot in Arizona. He drew up a will and arranged to be cremated through a funeral home in San Diego. With his debts paid and his last wishes clear, Jim assured his mother there was nothing more to worry about.
The end came quickly. Jim had only been on the seventh ﬂoor for six or seven hours when he began making a guttural, gasping sound. By now, everyone had arrived: Jim’s sister, Joy; his best friend, Billy, and countless others. Startled, they rushed to his bed.
“What is it, Jim?” his mother asked.
“Can I help you? You’re not crying. Please don’t cry.”
Jim shook his head. He was laughing. “It’s okay, Mom,” he whispered. “I am less and less. There is more and more.” Then he fell into a coma. Soon after, he was dead.
Everything went as planned. In the hospital room, Joyce said good-bye to her son. After she went home, the nurses came and took Jim’s body down the long hall, into the freight elevator, and downstairs to the morgue. Several weeks later, someone from the mortuary called Joyce to say that Jim’s ashes were ready. “Okay, send them along,” Joyce replied. But when the urn arrived, she didn’t open it. She clutched it and placed it on her shelf, where she gazed at it for weeks. Finally, she sent it on to Tucson, where it was buried beside the urn of Jim’s father.
Fourteen months passed. Then, one afternoon, the telephone rang in Joyce’s house.
When she answered it, a woman asked, “Are you the mother of Jim Farrelly?”
“Yes,” Joyce said. “What is this regarding?”
“I’m a victim’s advocate.”
Joyce wondered if one of her sons was playing a joke. “But my son is dead,” she said.
“Yes, I know,” the woman said.
Could it be identity theft? Joyce pressed the phone to her ear and took a deep breath. “I don’t understand,” she said. “What is this about?”
The female caller paused. “I’m calling to tell you that your son has been the victim of a crime.”
“A crime?” Joyce almost laughed.
“Ma’am,” the woman’s voice was somber. “We have identiﬁed your son’s body parts at a crematorium. His body was dismembered.”
Dismembered? But Jim’s ashes . . . He’d been buried. He was ﬁne. Joyce said, “I’m going to have to call you back.”
Later, Joyce would recall that ﬁnal night in the hospital. In retrospect, it seemed odd to have left Jim alone. And yet, what could she have done? No one had invited her to the morgue. Did the hospital even have one? Joyce had never thought to ask. The nurses, who had been so solicitous when Jim was alive, said nothing about his corpse. Joyce had signed some papers at the funeral home. But she never saw Jim’s body. Now, Joyce wondered: Where had they taken him? Why hadn’t she been there for her son?
Corpses lead a perilous existence. Whisked from the arms of family and friends, they embark on a journey under the care of strangers. In most cases, those to whom we entrust our dead take care to ensure that they’re laid to rest safely. Most morgue workers, funeral directors, and crematorium operators keep careful track of each body. Indeed, many care for them as they would the dead bodies of their own relatives. Still, body brokers have been known to haunt this dark landscape, hunting for body parts, which they can later sell.
At each stage of the journey, there is ample opportunity for theft. At the hospital, a nurse or an attendant shuttles the corpse ﬁrst to the morgue, where it’s stored in a steel refrigerator. If a family requests it, an autopsy may be performed. As it happens, an autopsy is an ideal situation for body brokers inclined to theft. Pathologists routinely take samples of specimens relevant to their investigation–a slice of kidney, for instance–which get preserved in parafﬁn blocks and transferred onto slides. An honest pathologist may remove a whole brain and keep it ﬁxed in preservative for weeks. Otherwise, the brain matter will not yield its secrets. This is perfectly legal as long as the doctor has permission from the deceased’s family.
But consent forms vary in their speciﬁcity, and pathologists often work with unlicensed assistants known as dieners, a word derived from the German for servant. Dieners do the work that no one else wants to do: They dissect bodies, cutting through bone and muscle and removing whole organs so that the pathologists can weigh and examine them. They are responsible for cleaning up the morgue and assisting pathologists. A diener may work with a pathologist, while at the same time harvesting body parts for tissue banks. Stealing body parts is easy for a diener, and the money is good. Dieners often become brokers.
Numerous diener thefts have been discovered over the years, from Maine to Los Angeles. Nearly all of these cases were uncovered purely by chance. Often the families of the dead noticed something odd on an autopsy report. Only later did they learn that parts of their family member’s body had disappeared owing to an intricate deception.
If an autopsy isn’t ordered, someone at the hospital calls the funeral home of the family’s choice. A driver comes to pick the body up and take it to the funeral home. There, the body is refrigerated until the time comes for what’s known in the funeral trade as “ﬁnal disposition.” If the body is to be cremated, it may be sent to another funeral home equipped with a crematorium or to a crematorium at a nearby cemetery. Here, once again, a stranger, who often has little training or supervision, assumes control of the body. If the crematorium operator is so inclined or is familiar with the market, he may be tempted to remove a body part before sliding the cadaver into an oven. Once a body is cremated, there’s no way to know if anything is missing.
If the body is to be embalmed, the procedure takes place at a funeral home. But there too, a corpse may not be safe. The funeral home may have an agreement with a tissue bank. Each body may produce a tidy kickback, a thousand dollars, perhaps. Or, more disturbing, the funeral director may own his own tissue bank, earning thousands of dollars selling the parts of each corpse entrusted to his care. He might not bother to ask permission.
Relatives rarely have the opportunity–or the inclination–to accompany their deceased loved ones into the realm of hospital morgues and funeral homes. They sit by their bedsides while they are alive, clutching at any sign of life. But once death comes, they are quick to release them into a world, which, for many, is a kind of wilderness. And there, as in the wild, vultures are drawn to the dead.
An Ideal Situation
n 2001, Michael Brown had a thriving cremation business in Lake Elsinore, California, a pleasant suburban town seventy miles southeast of Los Angeles. He had ﬁve admiring employees, a beautiful wife, and two sons. Brown, who was in his early forties, was a loving and supportive father. On most weekends, he could be found racing dirt bikes with his older son and attending the boys’ ice hockey games. Brown took both boys camping in the Nevada wilderness. He Jet Skied with them on the town lake, played golf with them, and taught them how to ﬂy radio airplanes. Brown beamed when he spoke of his children. “Those kids are my heart and soul,” he said.
Brown wasn’t a devout Christian, although he displayed in his spare ofﬁce a Bible engraved with his name. Sometimes he even quoted Matthew 7:3–“Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye?”
The California state crematorium inspector, Dan Redmond, saw this same humble philosophy in Brown’s work and was impressed by it. “You can honestly tell when these guys are just in the business to make an extra buck, and Mike was not like that,” Redmond said. Redmond noticed that when Brown talked to grieving families, he listened, counseled, and was careful to avoid any sales talk or to push a fancy cofﬁn. If a family couldn’t afford a funeral, Brown offered to cut his rates or provide a service free of charge.
“He had one of the best crematorium in southern California,” Redmond said with a smile. In 1996, when a nearby funeral home got in trouble for improperly storing bodies, Brown was the ﬁrst man Redmond called as his expert witness. “When other guys in the business had problems, I used to tell them to go and look at Brown’s place. That’s how a crematorium ought to be run.” Brown’s records were always in order; there was never a document out of place, never a signature missing. He was constantly mopping and sweeping.
But beneath his caring manner, Brown had little feeling for his customers, living or dead. Later, he would say, “I don’t believe a body is worth more than garbage once you pass away.”
One afternoon in February 1999, Jennifer Bittner stood in the parking lot of Brown’s crematorium. She was a pretty, pale-skinned girl, with delicate features, blue eyes, and long brown hair that she wore loose down her back. Bittner appeared older than her eighteen years. Her shoulders slumped and her face was drawn with grief.
Shading her eyes from the glaring sun, Bittner stared at the long, low building. Made of stucco and stone, the crematorium was like all of the other buildings in the ofﬁce park. It was ﬂat and rectangular and resembled a warehouse. Bittner couldn’t see much through the tinted glass door. But looking up, she could make out three small chimneys.
When Bittner appeared in Michael Brown’s doorway, he jumped up, shook her hand, and led her into a back ofﬁce. Brown made an impression on the young woman. He was about six feet tall, blond and blue-eyed, with the muscular build of a high school football star. Bittner admired his neatly trimmed goatee. Later, she recalled ﬁnding him “very attractive.” He was also instantly empathetic. Brown listened and patted her arm as she explained that her cousin had just died and her family didn’t have enough money for his funeral.
“It was gang violence,” Bittner said softly. “My cousin was murdered.”
Brown nodded gently and offered to arrange for a discounted funeral. “I’ll take care of everything,” he promised.
After they made the funeral arrangements, Bittner asked Brown if she could take a look around. She had always been curious about dead bodies. In her spare time, she read Patricia Cornwell mysteries, books like Postmortem and Cause of Death, and she dreamed about one day investigating crime scenes.
From the Hardcover edition.
Meet the Author
ANNIE CHENEY’s magazine work has appeared in Harper’s and My Generation. Her Harper’s article that is the basis of this book was awarded the 2005 Deadline Club Award for Best Feature Reporting by the Society of Professional Journalists. She has also contributed stories to numerous public radio shows, including NPR’s All Things Considered. Cheney lives in New York City.
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