Monday, June 05, 2006

Body Brokers : Inside America's Underground Trade in Human Remains by Annie Cheney

Category: True Crime/Non Fiction

Publisher: Broadway

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


hellomelissa said...

EEEWWWWWW! cool stuff. you must have been fascinated reading this book as i know you have a penchant for the field of medicine. do you ever watch "trauma:life in the e.r." or anything like that? i love those shows! another great review that piqued my interest, lotus.

Lotus Reads said...

Hi, Melissa!

I was, I really was (fascinated) because as you rightly point out I love the medical field and am a huge advocate of organ donation ( not as a live donor tho').I do watch ER sometimes, but I really love "House", or maybe I like Dr. House? ;)

Ever watched the show?

Lotus Reads said...

Sruthi couldn't get into the blog this morning so she sent me comment by e-mail:

this is so scary, but I'm sure it happens more often than we realize or care to think about. Even though companies need it to test out new equipment, etc, the way the prices are inflated and all the behind-the-scenes shadiness makes me think that every once in a while, these "items" get into the hands of some maniac who uses them for god knows what. Did you ever see the article about how a man was accused of purposely planting a human finger in a bowl of soup and claiming it was the restaurant's fault? They found out he did it on purpose so he could sue the restaurant. Now where would one find a finger lying around...let alone pick it up and decide to do something with it?!!

This sounds morbid, you're right, but it's still really worth reading to be aware of it!

Rebecca H. said...

Wow, this sounds interesting! I remember hearing about that exhibit you started off with -- really, really interesting idea.

Rosemary Esehagu said...

As a student who has benefited immensely from a family's decision to donate their member's body to enhance medical learning, I am appalled that there are people out there who would sell bodies that were supposed to be used strictly for learning or even bodies that were supposed to be fully cremated. It is such a despicable act.

I cannot imagine medical students learning about anatomy without a cadaver. A severe paucity of cadaver (in medical schools) is likely to result as families start to lose confidence that their member’s body would be used appropriately.

It is shocking to see how willing people are to dirty their moral character, in exchange for some money.

Cassiopeia Rises said...

This sounds just the kind of book I would like to read. A little creepy but something that is good to know about.
Good review lotus. I think I'll be buying this book.

Suzan Abrams, email: said...

What truly interesting observations you have pointed out Lotus and I think your choice of subjects is multi-faceted and truly creative. Being able to command a solid fair and neutral standing each time, is what makes you such a good book reviewer. I have to return again for a second and third reading. It's quite a morbid but fascinating subject.

Unknown said...

I think I saw a "Law and Order" about this and I remember being grossed out at the thought. I think there is a museum in Germany like the one you describe.

Unknown said...

Love the way you structure your blog. I'll have to consider that when I do mine...yes I will do one...just waiting until I have a few minutes with some books by my elbow and not upstairs next to my bed!

Cassiopeia Rises said...

Oh lotus I did it or rather my son did it for me. David said this was the craziest set up he had seen but I watched him so I should be able to add other links as I meet other bloggers. : )

Anonymous said...

Wow, we really learn something new everyday! It's scary to think there's a black market for bodies. Now I'm thinking back to my grandparents funerals in the States and if this had happened to them!!

I saw the Body Worlds exhibit at the Science Centre. It was really interesting the body stripped of it's skin to see what we're made of. After awhile, we forgot that we were looking at real bodies! The most interesting part was seeing a baby at 1 week, 3 weeks and at 1 month. So tiny, the jar it was in magnified them so you could see them up close.

The exhibit was first shown in Germany but is now touring around the world.

Lotus Reads said...

Hi, Sruthi!

Gosh, yes, this sounds like the recent case at Wendy's where a woman claimed to find a finger in her chilli. I shudder to think how easy it is for some people to have access to body parts. More regulation, I say, but is anyone listening?

Hi, Dorothy

Yes, the exhibition was hugely popular when it came to the Ontario Science Museum. My daughter visited it as part of a school trip -she was fascinated. It was a good learning experience.

Lotus Reads said...
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Lotus Reads said...

Hi, Rosemary

So happy to see you here. Yes, I agree with you completely. Cadavers are vital for medical students, transplant patients and researchers, so the fact that so many of them end up on the black market for sale is truly worrisome. I wish so much the Federal governemt would put a whole bunch of stricter laws in place to prevent this from happening.

The other thing that worries me is live donor organ donation. CNN had a program about that yesterday (it's called "Body Parts) and according to them more people today than at any time are donating organs like kidneys and parts of their liver for purely altruistic reasons. No doubt is a noble thing to do but they haven't done enough studies on live donors to know if it is a safe thing to do or not. Also, while the recipient of the organ is monitored for years after receiving the donated organ, no one follows up on the donor...

Lotus Reads said...

Beloved -

It is morbid, but it's important to be aware that sometimes all is not what it seems in this particular industry.

Awwww, Susan, thank you! I started this blog intending it to be a showcase for South-Asian lit. but in a dilettantish way I want to be able explore all types of writing and all genres and I'm having fun doing it!

Lotus Reads said...

Angela - I would love to visit the online site of the German museum. Would be quite interesting, I'm sure.

Hi, Dawn - Thanks and can't wait until you set up your book blog. I will be a regular visitor for sure.

Hi, Sasgirl

Thank you for the information on "BodyWorlds"! Gosh, yes, the fetus must have been one of the more intriguing exhibits on there. Wasn't there a pregnant woman exhibit as well? I know the London(UK) tour featured it and many people were extremely distressed by it. N. liked it overall, the lung exhibits - normal,cancerous and smoker's - had a huge impact on her. She vowed she would never pick up a cigarette ever!

Unknown said...

Well, I've done it...and I've actually posted something! Thanks for the interest! I have to admit that reading things like the "Body Broker" is easier then watching a documentary or movie. I find that I can somehow find it interesting and not scarey. I love books about mummies and I've read a couple Great books on forensic anthropology. The last was "Bone Woman" by Clea Koff. In this she talked about both identifying bodies in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia. It is stunning, both very scarey and moveing...but also lets you know a lot of what was going on that you don't get from the news!

Booklogged said...

Makes you wonder how some people can sleep at night. Very interesting review, lotus. Thanks for alerting us to this issue. Being an organ donor is something I need to investigate a bit more. It's all so very disturbing and, thanks to money mongers, a lot more complex to decide.

Unknown said...

I think I found was I was talking about. I am pretty sure I saw this advertised in London while I was there. I am not sure if I am glad I missed it or not.

Unknown said...
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Unknown said...

David D Jerald said...

Ok Lotus I have heard of body parts being sold. I don’t know if I want to read that book or not but my mind is made up on one thing. I’m leaving strict secret instruction to my eldest son to take my body right after death way up into the mountains. He is to throw it into an isolated crevice somewhere and roll boulders down over it. He is never to reveal where I lay. Ha! They won’t get me.
Great Review as usual.

Lotus Reads said...


Yes, I have heard of "Bone Woman" by Clea Koff, infact, I heard an interview with her on one of the NPR stations, it was fascinating! I would love to read the book some time, if I can stand it. I am sure it has stuff in there that will evoke strong emotions in me.

Hi, booklogged

I think the only reason they sleep at night is because they are conditioned into thinking that cadavers are commodities and nothing else. Sad, isn't it?

Hi, Angela

Thanks so much! I will check it out for sure.

Hi, Dave!

You won't be the first! :) The Parsi community in India does the same thing. They believe it is the most hygenic way to dispose of one's body. Oops, this is really morbid now, I'm going to have to change the subject! ;)

Susan in Italy said...

Lotus, I stopped reading where you said that squeamish people should! A couple years ago, an MD friend of mine showed a video of this museum show at a dinner party after the dinner and I had to leave the room. He was a little miffed at me (this was before the scandal came to light) because he thought it was a great tool to teach everyday people anatomy. Now Rosemary's comment seems to indicate less may be learnes bacause of this.

Lotus Reads said...

Susan, I don't blame you, shows like "Body Worlds" is not everyone's cup of tea, but as sasgirl mentioned in the comments, when you go to an exhibition like that, after a while you forget they're cadavers and you start to observe them like they were anatomical models or dare I I guess the viewer is shocked for the first five minutes, after which we become, shall I say, desensitized? It was a good learning experience for my daughter's class however.