Body Brokers: Journalists track painful new twists in turning body parts into profit

Published on
November 21, 2017

If you are going to thrive in any industry, you must adapt to changing market needs.

Research in Motion’s Blackberry famously led the smartphone revolution but then was outpaced by Apple’s iPhone. Meanwhile, Amazon constantly evolved, from a bookseller into an everything-seller and is now the world’s largest provider of cloud computing services.

In the gray market for human body parts, the companies and the one-person body brokers have adapted in many different ways, as shown in a recent Reuters series. Here are three of the most interesting and most instructive takeaways for reporters wanting to uncover the body-part profiteers in their own communities.

1. Some people are worth more dead than alive. The first part of the Reuters series focuses on how the industry takes advantage of poor people. Reporters Brian Grow and John Shiffman write:

The industry’s business model hinges on access to a large supply of free bodies, which often come from the poor. In return for a body, brokers typically cremate a portion of the donor at no charge. By offering free cremation, some deathcare industry veterans say, brokers appeal to low-income families at their most vulnerable. Many have drained their savings paying for a loved one’s medical treatment and can’t afford a traditional funeral.

Reuters documented that the money today is much better than it was back in the early 2000s, when I wrote about the body parts industry with a group of reporters at the Orange County Register. We wrote about an industry worth about $500 million at the time. They documented that just one body broker brought in $27 million in one year, making the industry total likely well over $1 billion.

2. The funeral home industry is much more involved than was previously known. Reuters showed how one company in Oklahoma, United Tissue Network, is owned by mortuary operators. As a result, a huge percentage of the bodies going to the company came from funeral homes.

According to Oklahoma state filings obtained under public records laws, United Tissue has grown steadily. From 2012 through 2016, United Tissue received 3,542 bodies. Almost half were referred by funeral homes. Ezzell said that last year, no more than 10 percent came from mortuaries owned by Corbett or him. During that five-year period, the records show, United Tissue distributed 17,956 body parts to clients. Supply has sometimes exceeded demand. In late 2015, the broker sent an email in which it offered customers a price break to help move surplus arms, pelvises and shoulders.

Of course, no one is naïve in thinking that funeral homes are charitable organizations. We know that they are businesses providing a service, but what makes this is troubling is the level of trust that people put into funeral homes. It’s a different relationship than one has with a dry cleaner or a doughnut shop. You don’t expect them to be angling to make an extra buck off your loved one. You assume that there is profit in a casket, in the cremation, and in the service, but the body being mined for money-making opportunities is beyond most people’s expectations.

3. It’s so easy to buy body parts that you might want to try to do it yourself. That’s what the Reuters reporters did. They showed how easy it was to get into the body parts trade by buying a spine and two human heads. And then they created a trail back to the families who had thought they were donating a loved one’s body as a charitable gift. The trail started with a single date supplied by the body broker that sold Reuters the spine. It was a death date.

By reviewing obituaries from those dates and that geographic area, Reuters tentatively identified one of the donors as Cody Saunders of Townsend, Tennessee. Byrd sold Reuters the man’s cervical spine. To confirm the spine was from Saunders, Reuters had DNA testing done, comparing a sample from the spine to buccal swabs from Saunders’ parents. The samples were sent to the Forensic Science Program at Western Carolina University’s Department of Chemistry and Physics. The test showed that the spine belonged to Cody Saunders.

Reuters also did something remarkable and ripe for replication by other reporters. They thought about how these body parts should be handled — with respect and in a way that would hold up to scientific scrutiny. So they never handled the body parts themselves. They handed over the packages with the body parts to a licensed mortician and had them analyzed for DNA evidence by a licensed laboratory. From the way the story reads, it appears to that they treated Cody Saunders’ family with respect, discussing their findings with them and fully reflecting their mixed emotions about what had happened, and on the role of reporters bringing to light something that causes real distress.

This is something reporters face all the time when they make a discovery of something that could easily stay in the shadows forever. What obligation do you have to reveal such facts, knowing they will bring pain, anxiety, and potentially much worse? People can end up in huge family fights over these types of revelations. There can be financial consequences. People may end up harming themselves.

I still remember talking to a man who lost his wife after I wrote a story about everything that had contributed to her death in a hospital. He didn’t know anything about what went on, only that his wife had gone in relatively healthy and quickly succumbed to an infection that, by all available evidence, she acquired in the hospital. He felt so incredibly isolated and alone, not only because he had lost his wife but also because he felt powerless to do anything about the past. In that moment, I felt that in some ways he would have been better off emotionally if had continued to think that his wife had just been unlucky. That everyone in the hospital had done the right thing and that she had been a victim of the odds.

It’s not obvious to me that the right answer is always “the reveal.”  

[Photo by Lydia via Flickr.]


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