Warning: This story contains graphic content. “Death. It doesn’t have to be boring,” Mary Roach wrote in her book, “Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers.” The New York Times bestselling author wasn’t off in her assessment. These days, you don’t have to just be buried or cremated. You can go the tree burial route, be shot into space via rocket, freeze your body until modern medicine can revive you, be turned into fertilizer, or have your ashes crafted into a diamond.
Far less romantic is the option to donate your body to be used for scientific or medical research. You might not become one with mother nature or shoot through space like a lifeless Superman, but your body can assist in making some pretty incredible medical or scientific progress. For that, look no further than The Grand Canyon State. Not just known for palm trees and being the birthplace of Stevie Nicks, Arizona has become a thriving market in the body-selling industry.
There are at least four body donation companies operating in Arizona, according to Arizona Central, as well as a cryonics company that freezes people’s post death in the hopes that one day they will be revived with future technology.
This route is more popular than one might think. It seems the residents of The Grand Canyon State have less qualms about giving away their bodies than most other states perhaps because of Arizona’s openness to the cadaver-selling market. About 4,000 people — roughly 7 percent of the people who die in Arizona each year — are whole-body donors, which is five times the national average based on data from 39 states, according to the Illinois-based Cremation Association of North America.
“Arizona has probably one of the largest donor bases for human tissue for medical education and research than probably any other place in the country,” Garland Shreves, CEO of Research for Life in Phoenix, told Arizona Central in June 2019.
The dark side of donationsAs noble as body donations are in the name of science they are not without their scandals. In fact, there’s a long history of grave robbing and murder associated with the practice. Though, these were not willing donations. The problem got so bad that wealthier families would build iron coffins or safes over the graves of loved ones. Eventually, legislation made it easier for medical students and professionals to have access to bodies to practice on so they wouldn’t have to resort to such macabre means, but the stories are still chilling nonetheless.
Yet, when it comes to modern cadaver-selling practices, there are still grisly stories to this day.
In 2014, Biological Resource Center, a for-profit body donation company in Phoenix, was raided by the FBI as part of a federal investigation involving the organization’s client, Arthur Rathburn, a Detroit body broker. The company, which has since been shut down, accepted body donations and provided the families of the deceased free transportation services to pick up the body as well as a free cremation.
During the raid of BRC, according to a civil lawsuit against the business, agents made gruesome discoveries including a small head sewn onto a large body in a “‘Frankenstein’ manner,” a cooler filled with male genitalia, and buckets of limbs.
Unsettling images from the raid show agents in hazmat suits encasing their flesh as they dragged out large red garbage bags, their grisly contents left to the imagination. According to a 2017 article by Reuters, 10 tons of frozen human remains were found by investigators. In total, there were 1,755 total body parts including 281 heads, 241 shoulders, 337 legs, and 97 spines. Of the 142 body bags hauled away during the raid, one contained body parts from 36 different people.
According to Arizona Central, the state of Arizona runs fast and loose as far as regulation goes for the cadaver-selling industry. In 2017, in response to the BRC raid, the state passed legislation stating that body donation companies were no longer allowed to run without a state license. Alas, it is not a law that has been enforced.
As unsettling as it is to read graphic descriptions, the betrayal was visceral to the family members who believed their loved ones’ bodies were going toward a worthy cause.
Troy Harp is one of more than 30 plaintiffs suing BRC. He donated the bodies of his mother and grandmother, believing their remains would serve a scientific purpose for the greater good. Instead, he was shocked to find that they were, most likely, mere body parts strewn about like rubbish.
“This is a horror story. It’s just unbelievable. This story is unbelievable,” he said, according to KKTV 11. “Cancer, and leukemia and whatever else, using sample cells, that’s what I was told.”
“I was devastated,” Gwendolyn Aloia, another plaintiff who donated her husband’s body to BRC, told TIME. “I’ve been violated. He’s been violated.”
Aloia said she wasn’t even sure anymore if the ashes returned to her were even those of her husband. BRC had sent what she thought was her husband’s ashes back to her with a letter stating that his body was used for scientific research.
Lawyers for the plaintiffs did some digging into BRC owner Stephen Gore’s past and found that his highest level of education was high school, according to Arizona Central, and that he had no licenses or certifications related to the body donation industry.
Even more telling, after going through donor files from May 3, 2011 through January 20, 2014, Reuters found that most of those supplying cadavers to BRC were on a lower-income threshold. Many of these donors came from neighborhoods where the median household income fell below the state average and four out of five donors didn’t graduate from college.
The raid occurred in 2014 but the case gained a new wave of outrage after details in a lawsuit against BRC were released. The civil lawsuit is expected to go to trial on Oct. 21.
Court documents even go as far as providing details like a 2013 price list for body parts:
» Whole-body with no shoulders or head: $2,900
» Torso with head: $2,400
» Whole spine: $950
» Whole leg: $1,100
» Whole foot: $450
» Knee: $375
» Pelvis: $400
In a letter to the judge, the ironically named Gore complained that he was working in an industry that lacked formal regulation, according to Arizona Central.
“I could have been more open about the process of donation on the brochure we put in public view,” he wrote. “When deciding which donors could be eligible to donate, I should have hired a medical director rather than relying on medical knowledge from books or the Internet.”
The bright side of deathNot all is dark and demented when it comes to the for-profit cadaver industry, however. At Research for Life, another Phoenix body-donation company, consent is king.
“I think that the mystique surrounding it is part of the problem because people don’t understand what it is that we do or why we do it,” Shreves told Arizona Central. “There isn’t anything that we do that isn’t under consent.”
In fact, the company goes as far as to offer tours of its facility to provide more transparency into the industry and that they’re not “back-alley grave robbers,” Shreves said.
A representative for Southwest Institute for Bio-Advancement, a for-profit body donation business in Tucson, also emphasized their business’s consent practice.
“Our consent is extremely clear. It quite extensively says tissue will be removed. You are 100 percent aware of what you agreeing to in our consent,” said Allison Howell, medical client and community relations manager.
Donating your body to be disassembled and sent to various places to be used isn’t exactly the most glamorous way to dispose of your flesh but it’s very likely the donation will help further medical and scientific research. In fact, during one tour of Research for Life, Shreves pointed out a group of surgeons working on a shoulder donated to the facility.
“We owe donors for a variety of therapies that have been invented that add quality of life to people who are living with very serious diseases,” he told the tour. “They have longer life expectancy because of donors.”
A sticky businessDeath is a sticky and profitable business, it seems. While the BRC scandal certainly put a smear on the body-selling market, as with any industry, there’s good with the bad. But perhaps with the for-profit body donation industry, it’s time for more oversight.
“Allowing the donor to be used in parts makes certain that the donor can benefit a variety of medical education and research projects. ... We fill a need that I think is personally more important than university programs because of the nature of what we do with donors and the way donors are used,” Shreves said.
As for the money-making aspect of it all?
“You can’t do what we do without generating revenue,” Shreves said. “(The vendors) have to pay us, and there is nothing disgusting or wrong about it. There are people in our society who find it distressing that we get paid to recover human tissue. There’s no law against the buying or selling of human tissue. I do find it distasteful to call it that, but it’s semantics.”