A family who thought their grandfather’s body would be donated to science learned that he ended up dissected in front of a paying public audience in the middle of a hotel event room across the country.
The body of David Saunders, a 97-year-old WWII veteran, ended up in the ballroom of a Portland, Oregon Marriott hotel, where people paid up to $500 for tickets to see a live autopsy in person.
The family discovered what happened to their grandfathers’ body only after an undercover journalist from Seattle news outlet KING5 attended the October event and spotted the man’s name on a tag hanging from his body. The autopsy, performed by a retired college anatomy professor, included several hours of dissection: slicing into the chest cavity and removing organs and the brain.
Mike Clark, a funeral director in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, handled Saunders’ body after his death. Clark told KING5 that he passed the body to a private company called Med Ed Labs, which claimed to solicit corpses for medical research purposes. That company then sold the body to Jeremy Ciliberto, the founder of DeathScience.org, who partnered with the Oddities and Curiosities Expo to hold the cadaver autopsy event. Ciliberto said he bought bodies for this event for more than $10,000.
A representative for the Oddities and Curiosities Expo told Motherboard in an email that the expo’s only role in the event was to provide a ticketing platform for Death Science, and that the cadaver class has never been a part of the traveling expo.
“Oddities and Curiosities Expo was aware that this demonstration was happening at a different location with a different company, and were of the understanding that it was intended to be educational in nature,” the representative said.
Ciliberto advertised these events on his TikTok account.
People involved claimed that they were duped by the next person in the line-of-custody to take possession of Saunders’ body. Clark told KING5 he was under the impression that Med Ed Labs would use the corpse for medical research, and that “[Saunders] and his family thought that his body was going for the advancement of medical students.” Med Ed Labs claimed that Ciliberto was “beyond” dishonest about the nature of the event, and called it a “medical class.” Ciliberto claimed that the family was informed all along—“I can guarantee that that man knew his body would be used for medical research," Ciliberto said. Ciliberto pitched all along that it was an educational performance, and perhaps it was enlightening for the people who watched it.
In a statement to Motherboard, Ciliberto claimed that Med Ed Labs was responsible for and provided the cadaver as well as the anatomist, the equipment, a serology report, the venue booking, and all handling of the body before, during and after the event. “Med Ed Lab was contracted by Death Science and within this contract included confirmation that the provided cadaver was donated for research, medical and educational purposes,” Ciliberto said.
"In this workshop we will be observing a forensic autopsy on a full human cadaver. Death Science’s medical professionals will be guiding us through a formal autopsy. From the external body exam to the removal of vital organs including the brain, we will find new perspectives on how the human body can tell a story. There will be several opportunities for attendees to get an up close and personal look at the cadaver.
“Cadaver access before, after and during breaks," a description for the "Autopsy class" reads. The "Dissection Class," meanwhile, which followed one hour after the conclusion of the Autopsy class, said "we will be observing an anatomical dissection on a full human cadaver. Death Science’s medical professionals will be guiding us through a formal anatomical dissection. This dissection will offer us a unique look at what is under our skin, through our bodies and how it all works together. There will be several opportunities for attendees to get an up close and personal look at the cadaver."
A recent article on the funeral directors news website Connecting Directors discussed so-called chain-of-custody issues, where bodies are misplaced, misidentified, or otherwise lost. “You have to know, without any hint of a doubt, from the moment the remains are placed into your care to the time they reach final disposition or are returned to the family, that you can positively, unequivocally, provide positive, proper identification of that individual,” the article states.
According to the National Association of Medical Examiners, since Medical Examiners and Coroners work in full personal protective equipment, and COVID-19 is spread through respiratory droplets when a person speaks, sneezes or coughs, the risk of catching it from a dead person is low. “There is little scientific concern about contracting COVID-19 while performing an autopsy in full PPE (surgical gown, face shield, N-95 mask, shoe covers, head cover, 3 pairs of gloves),” NAME said in a statement in 2020. “The risk of acquiring COVID-19 is greater in the community than in the autopsy room.”
Body donation is an unregulated industry. Donations to universities are most likely to be used for teaching and research, and donors are much-needed to develop new medicine and tools that help the living, but private, for-profit companies that buy and sell cadavers have been caught using them to test explosives or leaving them to thaw in the sun.
Another of the expo’s Seattle autopsy class, set for Halloween, was canceled following KING5’s report. “We feel that this was not respectful and certainly not ethical,” Kimberly DiLeo, the chief medical death investigator for the Multnomah County, Oregon Medical Examiner, told the outlet.
Update: this story has been updated with a statement from Ciliberto and a representative for the Oddities and Curiosities Expo.