Did you read about the funeral home in Montrose, Colorado, that is being investigated by the FBI for selling body parts? My niece, who recently moved to Montrose, sent me this link to the story. An investment idea, she suggested. The most surprising fact of this story, in my opinion, is that selling body parts is perfectly legal. Also, did you know you don’t need a license to work as a funeral director, embalmer, or cremationist in Colorado? You need a license to work as a barber, a cosmetologist, or a manicurist, but not to prepare a body for its eternal rest. Colorado is the Wild West when it comes to death services, apparently.
The story about the Montrose funeral home came to light as part of a fascinating series by Reuters. The Body Trade explores the world of non-transplant organ donation, which is a fancy term for the practice of donating a body to science. It is illegal to sell body parts like kidneys or hearts for transplant, but it’s perfectly okay to sell the same organs to a research or educational facility. People choose to donate bodies for many reasons, but the main reason is financial. When a body is donated to science, a family can request the unused parts be cremated. Cremation for these donated bodies is often free or nearly so. When the average cost of cremation at a funeral home runs from $2,000-$5,000, many people feel donation is their only choice. If you read the Reuters series, you’ll read about poor families being pressured into donation when the cost of cremation or burial is too high. The families believe they are contributing to medical research, but it ain’t necessarily so. In one case, a Reuters reporter bought several body parts online just to see if he could. He said it was easier than buying wine online.
Donation implies charity, not profit. Selling body parts is a lucrative business and most family members have no idea how much the body of their loved one is actually worth. A whole cadaver might sell for $5,000 or $10,000, but most bodies are chopped up and sold in pieces which brings an even larger return. A torso with legs can fetch more than $3,500. And sometimes, the parts are rented rather than sold, creating an opportunity to charge multiple fees for the same part. In other words, a family devastated by medical debt and the loss of a loved one gets nothing, while some dude with a chainsaw and an entrepreneurial spirit rakes in thousands of dollars off a single corpse.
Look, having access to body parts is an important part of medical training and research. It would be shortsighted to stop the practice of body donation, but funeral directors should not be moonlighting as body brokers. It’s a conflict of interest. And there ought to be strict regulations about how donated body parts are bought and sold. No one, when donating their body to science, expects to have their cervical spine shipped out to a reporter like some sort of Amazon package. By the way, that purchase was deemed unfit for medical research. The handling and the documentation were too sloppy for the parts to be of any use. The families who donated these bodies deserve better. There should be baseline standards for tracking and record-keeping and stiff penalties for rogue brokers.
While we’re at it, let’s institute higher standards for people working in funeral homes. A licensing requirement shouldn’t be onerous, but it should require a minimum level of skill, training, and a commitment to ethical practices. In Montrose, the funeral director’s mom performed the embalming services. Before pumping a body with fluid, she would extract the gold-filled teeth from corpses and sell them to shore up her vacation fund. This should not be legal. At the very least, it should require explicit consent and any profit should offset the cost of the funeral.
The funeral business in America is a corrupt racket designed to turn a profit by mining the grief of the living. That’s bad, but it’s worse when you understand that funeral homes have entered into a grisly partnership with body brokers to make even more money by selling severed heads to the highest bidder. This is an industry in need of tight regulation and sharp scrutiny.
It’s too bad these greedy butchers can’t harvest and buy a conscience. That seems to be what they are lacking most.