When we think about donating our bodies to science (and who doesn’t, several times a day?), we imagine teary medical students whispering “Thank you” as they respectfully handle a perfectly preserved deceased volunteer. Unfortunately, the reality isn’t always quite that dignified, mostly thanks to the large and largely unregulated industry of “body part brokerage.” And if you thought that sentence was the darkest thing in this article, oh boy, you have no idea.

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1.

The Military Can Buy You To Use For Experiments And “Blast Testing”

When Jim Stauffer donated the remains of his mother, Doris, he did so with the understanding that they’d be used for Alzheimer’s research. Now, we’re not aware of the exact steps involved in preparing a body to be used in Alzheimer’s studies, but we’re pretty sure “Strap the dead person to a chair and place a powerful explosive underneath” ain’t it.

It turns out that instead of being studied by neurologists, poor Doris was sold to the military, which blew her up as part of an experiment “measuring the damage caused by roadside bombs.” Later, her son received all that was left of her: 6 oz of ashes. We understand cremation is never a pleasant process, but this was a rather extreme way of going about it.

And this wasn’t a onetime mix-up. In 2004, seven bodies donated to Tulane Medical School were given to a brokerage company, which sold them to the military for $25,000-$30,000 apiece. They were all blown up to test footwear designed to protect against landmines (we’re guessing it didn’t work very well). “Don’t let the military kablooey my corpse” isn’t something most people think they have to specify before they croak, yet this has happened even in cases where the deceased did exactly that. Like Kurt Hollstein, a disgruntled veteran who explicitly denied permission for his remains to be used by the military before he died, only to end up in an Army experiment anyway. Because dying of cancer wasn’t bad enough.

To be fair to the military, it appears they were unaware that they were using corpses without proper authorization. As of August 2019, dozens of families have filed suit against one body broker, Biological Resource Center (BRC), which made millions of dollars selling donated corpses. That’s because …

2.

There’s An Industry Making Huge Money Selling Poor People’s Donated Bodies

Donating your body directly to a university’s medical school is neither cost- nor hassle-free. It’s not as easy as asking a buddy to drop off your vacant shell at a college’s main entrance the next time he’s going that way. That’s why so many people end up leaving their bodies to a broker, who will take care of all that stuff for you out of the kindness of their hearts … and in exchange for a massive profit.

Reuters conducted a long-term, in-depth investigation of the body brokerage business, and determined that these companies are making big bucks selling corpses, mostly poor people. Brokers often recruit donations through funeral homes or hospice care, and it’s not hard to grasp how a low-income family that’s exhausted their savings on medical bills could find the prospect of a “free cremation” appealing. Plus, they’re helping science! As it turns out, they’re only padding the pockets of these brokers with their loved one’s remains. Sorry about the mental image.

3.

In Order To Be Sold, You Will Almost Certainly Be Hacked Into Various Parts And Sent … Wherever

Body brokerage is a business, and the object is to make as much money as possible. And the sad fact is that you’re generally worth more in pieces than as a whole. So you’ll be cut up and sold for parts like an old car. Exactly like your grocery store’s butcher, body brokers chop you into cuts of meat and sell them for varying amounts depending on how choice they are.

And there’s not much point in keeping all those bits in one place. For example, a grieving widow named Linda Hayes honored her husband’s dying wish that his body be donated for medical research. But when she tried to find out where his remains ended up, she learned he was chopped up like some medieval traitor and scattered to the four corners of the Earth. First his body was “leased to a nurse anesthetist seminar in Chicago,” then they sold his joints to two different companies, and nobody’s sure what happened to the rest of him. That, or it was something so awful that “We lost him” sounded better.

4.

They’ll Mangle You With Chainsaws And Sew Your Head To Another Body For Kicks

Once a buyer decides they want a piece of you (literally), how do they split your body into salable chunks? As you’ve probably sussed out by now, the process is grisly, devoid of dignity, and probably involves whatever electrical saw the closest hardware store had on sale.

 When the FBI raided Biological Resource Center’s facility in Phoenix, they found “a cooler filled with penises,” “a bucket of heads, arms, and legs,” and “pools of human blood and bodily fluids.” Officials also noted that the bodies “had been hacked up with chain saws or hack saws,” and that a female head had been sewn onto a male torso and hung on the wall like the most horrifying office decoration ever. An agent actually used the words “in a Frankenstein manner” when describing BRC, which are not words you want on a Yelp review.

On Saturdays, BRC’s “lab technician” taught college “interns” how to dismember corpses. One intern graphically recalled being selected to cut off an elderly woman’s head with a reciprocating saw, because she’d “never cut off a head before,” but all the others had (within a medical context, we hope). One week, the lesson involved pulling fingernails off corpses with pliers. That same lab tech also created a gruesome “instructional video” that demonstrated how to carve out someone’s spine with a Sawzall. But hey, failing a saw, there are other options. Vice founder Shane Smith witnessed firsthand a different company’s “procurement” process, including the 33 mallet whacks it took to chisel a woman’s head from her body. And this was after that company had cleaned up its act.

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