The Big Black Market for Spare Human Body Parts

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At Pacific Standard, Peter Andrey Smith reports on the black market big business of body brokers — those who prepare donated human remains for study by students, doctors, and scientists. A single human cadaver, parted out efficiently, can fetch $100,000 in a lightly regulated industry that’s ripe for fraudsters trying to make a buck on the donated dead.

In February of 2012, two duct-taped camping coolers—the kind you might take on a picnic—arrived at Delta Cargo, a freight-shipping warehouse on the northeast side of Detroit Metro airport. The airline’s ground crew tossed the coolers onto a pallet in a climate-controlled storage area. But the tape split, and a reddish liquid splattered out. Because the shipment was said to contain “five human heads with necks, two torsos, and one whole body,” it soon proved to be an expensive leak, requiring extensive biohazard remediation.

It seemed improbable that an entire body could fit inside two picnic coolers, so they pried open the lids. Inside were eight human heads, wrapped in trash bags and sitting in what appeared to be pools of blood. Eight faces, no names.

The United States is an excellent place to be in the body business. By one 2007 estimate, 20,000 human bodies are donated here annually. These donations come about directly. You can bequeath your body to anatomical gift programs operated by many universities, and you may become the “first patient” a surgeon operates on. Donations can also be arranged after death, through a network of independent firms, although in such cases your family may have only a vague notion of where your body will end up. Brokers do business with other brokers, who work with funeral homes and crematoriums that, in turn, get referrals from hospice centers—all of which means that, invariably, some donated remains end up dismembered, beheaded, and shipped around the world for profit.

You cannot legally sell a dead body—yours or anyone else’s. These brokers, instead, turn a profit off a corpse by charging for the service, not the actual goods. Their fees cover the “preparation” of cadaveric material as well as the “matching” and “placing” of remains. These re-allocation fees were once designed simply to cover the cost of transporting remains to and from medical schools.

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