- An elderly widow is upset that her husband's remains were put on display for money at a traveling expo.
- She claims that his body was donated to a medical school for scientific purposes only, not for commercial use.
- Donated remains must be used for medical education.
A 98-year-old war vet from Louisiana who died from COVID-19 (coronavirus) complications in August was recently made a part of a traveling expo that sold tickets to see his remains publicly dissected. His shocked widow, Elsie Saunders, thought she donated his body to a medical school—not to a show with tickets that cost up to $500. Saunders only learned what happened to her husband's body after a reporter for Seattle's KING-TV attended the expo and noticed the name "David Saunders" on the cadaver's bracelet.
"It's horrible what has happened to my husband," Saunders told NBC News. "I didn't know he was going to be…put on display like a performing bear or something. I only consented to body donation or scientific purposes."
This raises a ton of ethical questions about the expo, but also about the process of donating your body for science. What counts as "scientific use" when it comes to your remains? And, perhaps more importantly, is there a way to protect yourself from the scenario above?
The "Portland Cadaver Class" took place on October 17 in Washington state. The hosting organization, Death Science, is a self-proclaimed "independent education platform that works with educators to teach beyond the classroom." It also sells merchandise like T-shirts and art prints of burial sites.
"From the external body exam, to the removal of vital organs including the brain, we will find new perspectives on how the human body can tell a story," Death Science's now-deleted event description read, according to a Fox News report. "There will be several opportunities for attendees to get an up-close and personal look at the cadaver."
The class was part of a so-called "Oddities and Curiosities Expo." It sounds gruesome, and Elsie Saunders told Fox News that she felt betrayed by the donation system that handled her husband's remains. At the heart of the issue is a pretty simple question: was this "cadaver class" a legitimate medical demonstration, or was it more of a spectacle?
Want to Donate Your Body to Science? Start Here.
Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers was originally published in 2003, but author Mary Roach's brief guide to donating your body to science (at the back of the book) is a timeless reminder that you need to really do your research—and some introspection—before signing over your body to any organization. You'll want to give the book a full read for some examples of what medical schools could ostensibly do with your body once it's a willed cadaver.
For instance, some universities work with auto manufacturers to test new technology to keep people safe in the event of a car crash—and crash dummies aren't the only test subjects, so are cadavers. Most willed body programs indicate that your family will have no say (and often no notification) as to what will actually be done with your body; we can't all become full skeletons for anatomy classes.
To donate your body to a local medical school or your Alma Mater for research purposes, you'll need to do the legwork and reach out to the organization (and fill out lots and lots of forms). Here's where to start:
- Use a search engine to look up "willed body program" + the name of your state. This should turn up a list of body donation programs from local universities.
- Once you find a place to donate your body, call and ask for a willed donor form and an information packet—that way, there are no surprises.
- If there's something you really don't want done to your body, specify that in the donor form.
- Be sure to talk with your family about your decision—it's an emotional experience for loved ones, too.
Saunders told The Advocate, a Baton Rouge, Louisiana-based news organization, that she tried to give her husband's body to Louisiana State University for scientific research, but the university refused the donation because he had tested positive for COVID-19. Since her husband had a longstanding wish to donate his body for research, Saunders connected with a private company to organize a donation: Med Ed Labs of Las Vegas, Nevada.
From there, Med Ed Labs sold the body to Death Science, which "allegedly pays more than $10,000 for cadavers, but the exact amount paid for David Saunders is unknown," according to Fox News. "[Death Science] founder Jeremy Ciliberto insists that Med Ed was fully aware that attendees would not be 'exclusively' medical students."
So this comes down to a simple miscommunication. Not just anyone can walk in off the street to purchase a cadaver for any commercial purpose—in this case, a ticketed event where private citizens (rather than medical students) could simply buy access.
What happens with other remains that are directly handed over to medical schools, for example? One Fox News commenter reported this anecdote from a child in medical school:
The donated bodies were treated with the utmost respect, with the professor even saying that no jokes or humor would be tolerated during the dissection. At the end of the course, several moments of silence were observed in thanks and remembrance for those who gave the ultimate gift in training for future physicians.
At the end of the day, there is a he-said-she-said here between the event organizer and the private lab to which Elsie Saunders donated her husband's body. For those who want to donate their remains after they die, it sounds like Elsie Saunders did everything right: she honored her husband's wishes and worked with a laboratory that specializes in handling donated remains.
We just have to hope the process will be examined more closely following this incident. Med Ed's website specifically states that donations are to be used by medical students: "Whole body donation allows doctors and medical students in various fields to create better, less invasive surgical techniques, different ways to prevent illness, and overall, help people live longer and healthier lives."
Should just anyone who's curious about death be able to raise their hand and be counted as a student? That's a philosophical issue that an event titled "Oddities and Curiosities" will now have to grapple with—probably in the form of a lawsuit.