The BBC is reporting on a grisly trade behind the booming business for replacement body parts in medical procedures. Many unscrupulous “dealers” procure body parts from anyone willing to deal them — e.g., undertakers, medics — and will process them for resale inside legitimate companies. Apparently a fully processed cadaver can fetch up to $250,000.
The use of dead bodies in medicine is becoming ever more common.
But as the demands for human tissue continue to grow we have to wonder where the bodies are going to come from, because a number of recent cases have revealed a thriving black market in the trade in human bodies.
In September 2006 the Human Tissue Act came into force in the UK.
As well as changing the regulation on how human tissue was handled and stored, it allowed surgeons, for the first time, to practice new procedures on cadavers.
It is a change that could revolutionise surgery in this country.
David Hargreaves, a consultant hand surgeon from Southampton said: “The Americans have been able to do this sort of surgery on cadavers for many, many years and it has allowed surgeons to develop new techniques and advance knowledge that we’ve not been able to do in this country.
“We have been at disadvantage for many years.”
There are now plans for all surgeons to train on cadavers before they are let loose living patients.
But if that is going to happen the surgeons are going to need to get access to many more bodies than are currently donated to medical science.
In 2005, the last year for which figures are available, just 674 people donated their bodies to British medical schools.
In contemplating the body supply issue doctors may want to draw comparison with the situation in the US, where the trade in human tissue is very lightly regulated and a whole new industry has emerged to supply body parts.
The Anatomy Gifts Registry is one of a growing number of companies that deal in human tissue.
About 500 bodies a year arrive at their Baltimore facility – and the freezers in their warehouses are full of carefully wrapped and packaged body parts waiting for distribution to doctors and researchers, who will order anything up to 30 heads or legs or torsos at one time.
It is a peculiar business and it is made all the more complicated by the fact that is illegal to buy and sell human bodies.
So they rely on persuading people to donate their bodies to the company and then charge handling and processing fees for disarticulating (chopping up) the bodies and providing them to doctors.
On the face of it it seems amazing that anyone would submit their bodies for this sort of treatment, but business is booming.
As chief operating operator Brent Bardsley explains, it allows people to feel that some good is coming out of their death.
“People have a desire to help each other out; they really do, so there is an altruistic aspect to donation,” he said.
“The majority of our cases are cancer-related. People afflicted with cancer are generally not eligible to donate for transplantation.
“So this is a way for the donors and their families to experience some positive element from the tragic circumstances of a long illness and the death itself.”
It probably also helps that the company picks up all the expenses – saving the family the cost of a funeral.
But while companies like AGR are the legitimate side of the body supply business, but there is a darker side – a grisly but very lucrative black market trade in body parts.
Money to be made
Such is the demand for tissue that anyone who can lay their hands on a reliable source of bodies can make a fortune.
And the most obvious source of fresh corpses are funeral homes.
In December 2001, Jim Farrelly, a 45-year-old Californian, died after a long battle with Aids.
To ease the strain on his family he had arranged his own funeral – and for his ashes to be buried in the Arizona desert.
It was over a year later that his mother, Joyce Zamazanuk got a phone call.
“This young woman said we have got some of your son’s body parts in our morgue,” she said.
“I said, my son Jim died over a year ago – I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
The call had come from Riverside, California, where police had made a gruesome discovery in a local crematorium.
In the loft space above chapel and crematory ovens they found a collection of freezers full of dismembered body parts wrapped in cellophane.
The crematorium owner, Michael Brown, had set up as a tissue broker supplying doctors and medical device companies with bits of the bodies he was meant to be cremating.
It was a lucrative business – he could make an extra $5,000 on top of the amount he was charging for cremating each body.
Over two years he made nearly $500,000 chopping up and selling over 100 bodies.
And because he provided all the families with an urn of ashes scraped from the bottom if his crematory ovens, no-one was suspicious.
Michael Brown was only caught because he was turned in by a jealous lover.
Joyce Zamazanuk was eventually re-united with the real ashes of her son and Brown was sentenced to 20 years in jail.
Tip of the iceberg
Because these crimes are so difficult to detect, many experts feel that there are many more body-snatchers out there.
Over the past few years a handful of high profile cases of grave-robbery in funeral homes and medical school have come to light but they are probably just the tip of the iceberg.
In the unregulated US market the body trade is a classic example of supply and demand.
While the medical demands for human tissue remain so high, there will always be the opportunity for people to make a lot of money out of the trade.
Unless the legitimate supply of bodies can be raised to meet the demand. All it would take would be for many more people to forego a traditional funeral and donate their remains to medical science.