Category: True Crime/Non Fiction
Format: eBook, 224 pages
Pub Date: March 2006
A few short months ago, the most popular exhibtion here in Toronto was "Body Worlds" and it was hosted by the Ontario Science Museum. The exhibit, which features cadavers stripped of their epidermal layer so that one can observe the inner workings of their bodies as they do "everyday" things like playing chess, skating, and so on, is controversial enough, but a few days before the show was to begin some critics alleged that the person responsible for the exhibition, Dr. Gunther von Hagens, had somehow managed to receive bodies of executed prisoners in China for use in the exhibition. Gunther Von Hagens denied the claims insisting that every cadaver in the exhibition were consented donors, but there were many who believed that Von Hagens used a body broker to procur his corpses. So, when I saw Annie Chenny's book "Body Brokers" peeping out at me from the non-fiction section of the bookstore, I knew I wanted to read it.
(Warning: If you're squeamish, you might not want to read further)
Human Price List:
According to journalist Annie Cheney every year in the United States, tens of thousands of corpses meant for anatomy classes at medical colleges, burial, or cremation are stolen and make their way into the underground cadaver trade. The players in this business are unusual, in that, they have no reverence for a dead body, they are able to view it as a commodity, a very valuable commodity at that, where a head could fetch $550-900, a shoulder $375, a leg $700-$1000,Five grams of skin, $US803 and a whole body could cost anywhere from $4,000-$10,000!
Why is it so expensive?
It is illegal to buy and sell dead bodies, but the law allows companies to be compensated for their costs, which makes life very easy for brokers. By inflating the amount they spend on labor, transportation and storage of bodies, they can easily charge hideous amounts for body parts. With so much money to made and more demand than supply, players in the trade are not always scrupulous about where they acquire their corpses.
So, where do cadavers come from?
Most corpses that enter the cadaver trade are acquired legally with consent from the deceased person or his/her family, however, some in the trade employ deception and some, outright theft to acquire bodies. Bodies bound for cremation are particularly vulnerable because only 10 percent of states in the US inspect crematoria, making it very easy for crematoria workers to get on the payroll of cadaver hunters. And, when it comes to ashes there's no way for a family member to ascertain if all the body parts have been burned.
Who buys these cadavers and why?
Medical companies need them to develop and test new surgical equipment and also to use them at promotional venues/ seminars for doctors and surgeons who want to learn how to use the equipment. Hospitals buy them to use in transplant surgical procedures and researchers buy them, well, to do research...
This is morbid stuff, I know, but it's important to know that not everything is above board when it comes to the "death care" world and Annie Cheney does a wonderful job of taking us into the underground cadaver trade by talking to suppliers, brokers and buyers of bodies used for medical education and research. Be prepared to be disturbed and disgusted, but you will come away with a new awareness for a trade hidden in plain sight and also a desire to work in your small way towards insisting there be more federal oversight of cadavers, so that when loved ones and friends have a desire to donate their bodies to science, you know that their bodies are safe and not going to be bought and sold as a commodity.
For a critique on the book read Mary Roach's (author of Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers) review.
A related story in the USA Today...
And Body Snatchers on NPR's OnPointRadio