Corpse donated to science ends up dissected at an event with a $500 ticket

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The blurry video showed a corpse lying on a table in a hotel ballroom. A man bent over the corpse was speaking to an audience who had paid to witness the dissection of the body. Some people donned gloves and went to look at the corpse closely and touch it.

It was the body of David Saunders, a 98-year-old man from the US state of Louisiana who died of Covid-19 in August. According to his wife, this is not what she intended when she donated her body for medical research.

“My impression was that it would be strictly for the purposes of medical science, not that his body would be exposed,” said Elise Saunders, David’s widow. Describing the event as “morbid,” he said he had learned of it from media reports and was trying to get over the shock.

The dissection was reported last week by Seattle’s King 5 News TV station, according to which a journalist watched the event. The network aired footage shot at the hotel in Portland, Oregon, and said attendees paid up to $500 each to watch the dissection.

“Five hundred dollars a head for people to watch — that’s not science,” said Elsie Saunders.

Her husband’s corpse was intentionally blurred in the photo, but at one point it appeared that the man in charge of dissection was holding body parts in his hands and laying them out on a surface.

A page on Showpass publicized the event, held on October 17, as a “corpse lab” class “brought to you” by a company called Death Science and a second organization, Oddities and Curiosities Expo ( exhibition of oddities and curiosities).

Kyle Miller, who until Thursday (4) was a Death Science representative, said in an email on Wednesday (3) that the company has sold tickets to the general public. Seventy people attended a supposed workshop where “participants were able to observe an anatomical dissection of a complete human cadaver,” he said.

Death Science founder Jeremy Ciliberto said its goal was “to create an educational experience for individuals interested in learning more about human anatomy.”

“We understand that the event caused the family undue distress and we apologize for that,” he said.

Lieutenant Nathan Sheppard, a spokesman for Portland Police, said detectives consulted with the Oregon Department of Justice and the Multnomah County District Attorney. This would have concluded that, although the dissection may have violated civil law, there are no “criminal laws that apply directly to such circumstances”.

The Oregon Department of Health did not respond to requests for comment. Kimberly DiLeo, Multnomah County’s chief medical examiner, said the brain and organs were removed during what she described as a “public pay-per-view event.”

“It was absolutely immoral and unethical,” she said, adding that county officials are investigating whether the event violated laws.

Martin McAllister, general manager of the Portland Marriott Downtown Waterfront hotel, where the event was held, said in an email that his team had been misled by the client about the nature of the event.

Elise Saunders said that after her husband’s death she tried to donate her body to Louisiana State University School of Medicine. But the school would have rejected the offer because her husband had died of an infectious disease.

She then went to a Baton Rouge, Louisiana, funeral home, who referred her to Med Ed Labs, Nevada, which claims to supply corpses to military, government, commercial, and non-profit organizations.

“At no time was I told they were going to resell my husband’s body,” said Saunders, alluding to documents he signed with Med Ed Labs. “Under no circumstances would I have agreed to have my husband’s body publicly exposed.”

Med Ed Labs denied having committed any infraction, saying that Saunderes authorized the donation of the corpse.

In a statement posted on Friday, the lab said it “didn’t know people would pay to attend an event including one of our donors.”

The company said the person who performed the dissection was a “certified anatomist”, which it described as a former professor at the University of Montana who reportedly handled the remains with “all respect” and answered questions from members of the public “who described themselves as students, anthropologists and therapists”.

Miller said Death Science promotes educational courses and events for the public in fields such as forensic medicine and anatomy. A similar event had been planned for October 31 in Seattle but had been cancelled. Miller also said that Med Ed Labs and Death Science broke up their partnership.

On Thursday afternoon, Miller said his own involvement in Death Science was over.

He said Oddities & Curiosities Expo sold tickets at prices ranging from $100 to $500.

In an email, Oddities & Curiosities Expo did not say if it sold tickets. He claimed that Death Science organized the event, which would not have taken place in one of its own exhibitions. In a separate space, he told Oddities & Curiosities Expo, Death Science was one of the exhibitors “that sold their art.”

Miller said Death Science had no access to any personal documents, including the cadaver donation agreement.

According to him, Med Ed Labs provided the corpse, the instruments and the anatomist who taught the class. She would have booked the space at the Portland hotel and would have known that the audience would not be made up exclusively of medical students.

Obteen Nassiri, manager of Med Ed Labs, said in an interview last week that the organization thought the cadaver would be used for teaching medical students and professionals. He said Death Science contacted the lab saying it needed a cadaver “to teach anatomy to students.”

“We did some preliminary research and saw that their goal was to teach students the science of death,” he said. “I thought the cadaver would be used for teaching purposes and anatomical dissection.”

Med Ed Labs acquired the corpse from the funeral home in Baton Rouge and shipped it first to Las Vegas and then to Portland.

Nassiri said he spoke with Saunders on Wednesday.

“He was extremely upset because this company acted in our absence and sold tickets for this event to people who were not professionals or medical students,” he said.

Death Science paid about $10,000 for the entire event, Nassiri said, including use of the corpse, transporting it and personnel. The corpse has since been shipped back to Las Vegas, en route to Louisiana. Nassiri said Med Ed Labs will pay for his cremation and an urn.

The news released in Seattle quickly reached national and international media outlets, sparking outrage and recalling past controversies about the handling of human remains in public situations and spaces.

Protesters gathered at the University of Pennsylvania last year to protest anthropologists’ treatment of the bone of a young bombing victim. The bones were shown in a video of an online course: “Real Bones: Adventures in Forensic Anthropology”. In 2015, the University of Edinburgh reportedly divided opinions when it held workshops in which it showed “corpse materials” to the public, according to Carla Valentine, curator of the University of London’s Museum of Pathology.

A decade earlier, when the “Bodies” exhibition opened in New York, the company behind it was criticized for using corpses from China. She admitted that she could not prove that the bodies were not of prisoners who had possibly been tortured or executed.

Rina Knoeff, a professor at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands and a scholar of the history of medicine, said that public dissection as entertainment dates back at least to the Renaissance.

“I think maybe it was due to the same kind of interest that attracted people to watch public executions,” she commented. “Maybe it’s the thrill of sitting and watching someone being cut to pieces.”

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