A 98 year-old World War Two veteran who died of COVID donated his body to medical science – only for it to be dissected in front of a live audience at a $500-a-ticket event in a Portland Marriott hotel ballroom.
The body of David Saunders, of Baton Rouge in Louisiana, was sliced open and examined before a paying crowd in the conference room of a Marriott hotel in Portland on October 17. Audience members came to see a ‘cadaver class’ put on by a group called Death Science, as part of an ‘Oddities and Curiosities’ event.
That dissection was open to all members of the public, and was not reserved solely for scientists with a professional interest in the autopsy.
Saunders’ stunned widow Elsie, 92, says she had no idea her late husband’s body would be used for a ‘pay-per-view’ autopsy. She has condemned the event, and says she is considering legal action over her partner’s remains being treated like ‘a piece of meat’ for entertainment.
Her late husband served as a US Merchant Marine on the SS Mayo Brothers liberty ship during World War Two, with the supplies vessel deployed in European and Pacific waters.
The image above shows a live, pay-per-view autopsy held in a Portland, Oregon hotel room on October 17
Dr. Colin Henderson, a retired professor of anatomy who taught at the University of Montana in Missoula, dissected limbs and removed organs, including the brain, before a live audience of people who paid up to $500 per ticket
His corpse ended up in the ballroom after being donated to for-profit firm Med Ed Labs in Las Vegas, who then sold the remains to ‘macabre artist’ and Death Science founder Jeremy Ciliberto.
Ciliberto claimed that the company he bought the corpse from knew that it was going to be used for research, but the Las Vegas-based firm said that it was under the impression the body would be used to teach medical students.
He said that serology tests were also performed to ensure there was no risk of COVID infection.
The autopsy was held as part of an ‘Oddities and Curiosities’ event series, whose titillating website describes its events as ‘for lovers of the strange, unusual and bizarre’.
Grim video footage shot by an undercover journalist showed Saunders’ remains being dissected under the spotlights of a ballroom normally used to host weddings and corporate events by an anatomist in a gray t-shirt.
The live autopsy on Saunders’ body was performed for an audience at the Portland Marriott Downtown Waterfront, KING 5 News was first to report.
It is unclear when Saunders died. He headed a Baton Rouge-based electrical firm and lived in a retirement village during his later years.
According to one of the attendees, a corpse draped in a white sheet was placed on a table in the center of the ballroom.
VIP customers who paid $500 per ticket sat in the front row just a few inches away.
Dr. Colin Henderson, a retired professor of anatomy who taught at the University of Montana in Missoula, removed the sheet from the body, exposing the corpse of a man who ‘had donated his body to science.’
Henderson then used a surgical knife to cut into the chest cavity, head, and limbs of the corpse.
The retired professor removed several limbs, organs, and the brain.
The event was staged by an organization called Death Science. According to its web site, Death Science ‘is an educational platform focused on the scientific fields of forensic, medical, and mortuary science’ that ‘collaborates with industry experienced professionals…to teach students around the world’
During the hours-long procedure, Henderson told the audience members that this was exactly how he taught medical students throughout his academic career.
According to Henderson’s bio, he received his Ph.D. in biology from the University of New Mexico in 1985.
His expertise is one that is ’emphasizes the physiological ecology of insect and mammalian diet selection relative to plant biochemical defenses.’
Since 1986, he has taught anatomy and physiology courses to students majoring in the health professions.
According to its web site, Death Science ‘is an educational platform focused on the scientific fields of forensic, medical, and mortuary science’ that ‘collaborates with industry experienced professionals…to teach students around the world.’
But Saunders’ widow Elsie is among those who have condemned the macabre event – which was taped by an undercover journalist, and says her family had no idea Saunders’ remains would be used for a public for-profit ‘pay-per-view’ autopsy.
The corpse was that of David Saunders, 98, a World War Two veteran who died of COVID-19 and donated his body to science
The 92-year-old widow told KING-TV that she was ‘horrified’ that her husband was ‘treated like a piece of meat in front of a paying audience.’
The body was prepared by undertakers in Saunders’ native Louisiana, then given to Med Ed Labs, a Las Vegas-based for-profit company ‘established to provide medical and surgical education and training for the advancement of medical and surgical innovation.’ DailyMail.com has contacted Med Ed Labs for a comment.
Mike Clark, a funeral director in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, handled the preparation of Saunders’ body for Church Funeral Services and Crematory.
He told KING 5 he and his staff were horrified by what happened.
‘Our whole staff was horrified that this is what had happened to a gentleman that he and his family thought that his body was going for the advancement of medical students,’ Clark said.
Greg Clark, one of the owners of the funeral home, told DailyMail.com: ‘We are extremely saddened for Mr. Saunders widow and have no additional public comments concerning this case.
‘The time and place of death is not information that we are allowed to share.’
People donate the bodies of their loved ones to companies like Med Ed Labs in order to avoid the high cost of burial, and receive an urn of ashes whenever the research is complete.
Ciliberto, a macabre artist and founder of Death Science who organized the event known as the Oddities and Curiosities Expo, said he paid Med Ed Labs ‘north’ of $10,000 for each cadaver.
According to Ciliberto, Med Ed Labs was aware of his plans for the corpse.
‘Yes, Med Ed Labs was aware of the course,’ Ciliberto told DailyMail.com in an emailed statement on Wednesday.
The event was held as part of the ‘Oddities and Curiosities Expo’, which bills itself as a show for ‘lovers of the strange, unusual, and bizarre’
‘Death Science partnered with Med Ed Labs and was in direct contact with Med Lab Ed, specifically, Obteen Nassiri, for multiple months leading up to the course including, but not limited to, the fact that the attendees are not exclusively medical students and ticket sales.’
According to Ciliberto, Med Ed Labs provided the cadaver as well as the anatomist who performed the autopsy, Dr. Colin Henderson, a retired college professor.
Med Ed Labs also booked the venue for the cadaver class, according to Ciliberto.
The Death Science founder told DailyMail.com that Med Ed Labs ‘was responsible for the handling of the cadaver before, during and after the event.’
When asked if Saunders’ next of kin gave their consent to the autopsy, Ciliberto told DailyMail.com that his company ‘does not have access to personal information for cadavers provided.
‘The personal information including cause of death and donation agreement is only available to the medical partner and the funeral director.’
When asked if Death Science was aware that the cadaver belonged to someone who died of COVID-19, Ciliberto responded: ‘Death Science is not provided with the cause of death, but, Med Ed Labs did complete and provide Death Science with a serology test confirming that the cadaver provided did not have any infectious diseases present.
‘The anatomist provided by Med Ed Labs also confirmed this during the course.’
DailyMail.com has sought a response from Nassiri and Med Ed Labs.
The expo’s ‘cadaver lab classes’ feature real-life autopsies and dissections of human bodies performed before a live audience. The expo’s October 31 show scheduled to take place in Seattle on Halloween was canceled due to the backlash
Jeremy Ciliberto, a macabre artist and founder of Death Science who organized the event known as the Oddities and Curiosities Expo, said he paid Med Ed Labs ‘north’ of $10,000 for each cadaver
The autopsy was performed by Dr. Colin Henderson, a retired science professor from the University of Montana in Missoula
The event was held at Marriott Downtown Waterfront in Portland after it was moved there from a different Marriott hotel.
The cadaver class was initially scheduled to be held at the Downtown Courtyard Marriott (above), but pressure from the county coroner led to its cancellation
But the chief medical examiner in Portland said this wasn’t true.
Kimberly DiLeo, the Multnomah County Medical Examiner, said that a Med Ed Labs supervisor told her the company had no idea the body would be used for a live event.
Scientists don’t know how long COVID-19 can last in a human corpse
Researchers do not know how long the coronavirus can survive in human corpses
It is unclear how long the coronavirus, the virus that causes COVID-19, can survive in a deceased human body.
While some studies have indicated that the virus can persist for as long as five months in a living human, there are still no definitive studies as to how long the pathogen could last in a corpse.
According to a May 2021 study by the International Journal of Infectious Diseases, researchers discovered the presence of the SARS-CoV-2 genome in the corpse of an exhumed infected person one month after she died.
‘The viral gene targets were still present in her lungs and heart, however, the virus was no longer alive,’ according to the study.
Nonetheless, ‘infectious risks from human corpses should be considered.’
Simple fragments of the genome do not constitute a threat to humans, according to the study.
‘SARS-CoV-2 can survive in cadavers for a long time; it depends on the amount of virus detected before death, on which organ and tissue the virus had been detected in, and also on the burial process,’ according to researchers.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, ‘it is believed there is little risk of getting COVID-19 from a dead body.’
The disease is spread through respiratory droplets produced when an infected person coughs, sneezes, or talks.
‘If somebody were to go and touch, hug or kiss a dead corpse [of someone who died of the coronavirus], then yes, there is a chance that they might catch the virus from contact,’ Dr. Prakash Shrestha, an infectious disease physician with Covenant Health, told KAMC-TV.
However, he said there’s no need to worry.
While it is possible to catch COVID-19 from a corpse, the chance of this kind of infection happening is low.
‘Their supervisor was unaware of the deceased being used for this event,’ DiLeo said.
‘We feel that this was not respectful and certainly not ethical.’ A Med Ed Labs spokesman told KING-TV that Ciliberto had been ‘dishonest’ when obtaining the corpse. DailyMail.com has contacted Med Ed and Ciliberto for further comment.
Ciliberto later told KING-TV: ‘Any concerns about the cadaver have always been addressed by the lab.
‘Again I am not the lab, I am the host.’
He also added: ‘I can guarantee that that man knew his body would be used for medical research.’
But Ciliberto did not say that Saunders’ knew his body would be dissected for a paying audience at a hotel, rather than in the expected setting of a private laboratory.
The cadaver class was initially scheduled to be held at the Downtown Courtyard Marriott, but DiLeo pressured the hotel to cancel it.
When the organizers moved the event to the Marriott Downtown Waterfront, DiLeo once again tried to persuade the managers at the hotel to not allow it to go forward. The hotel refused.
A subsequent autopsy scheduled by Ciliberto to be held at another Marriott in Seattle on October 31 – Halloween – has since been canceled amid outrage over the Portland event.
‘We follow detailed protocols to protect safety…,’ Martin McAllister, the general manager of the Marriott Downtown Waterfront, told KING-TV.
‘We are aware of concerns regarding a recent event and we are looking into them further, but as a matter of privacy, we do not discuss details of guests or groups.’
DailyMail.com has contacted Marriott seeking further comment.
Ciliberto told DailyMail.com that the hotel was aware there would be a live autopsy on a human body and that a paid audience was going to attend to see it.
He said Med Ed Labs booked the hotel.
‘Yes, while the venue was booked by Med Ed Labs, Death Science was in direct contact with the hotel who provided full set up of the space the course was held in including the transportation of the cadaver, lighting, positioning the table, chairs, electronics and spoke directly with Med Ed Labs to confirm all safety precautions were in place and followed,’ Ciliberto told DailyMail.com.
At least two attendees who saw the show told KING 5 TV that Henderson was respectful toward the corpse.
‘It was very educational,’ one attendee who goes by the name ‘Monica’ said.
‘It was very respectful to the person that donated their body.’
Christine, a Portland resident, said: ‘They’re not doing anything that I would, if it was my own family member, be upset about.’
A similar event scheduled to take place on Halloween in Seattle was cancelled due to public reaction.
Death Science also offers ‘eCourses’ that are taught with ‘hyperrealistic simulated scenarios on sets with actors, props, body paint, fake blood, FBI quality ballistics gel, handmade bones created with special resin that mimics human bone tensile strength, and more special effects.’
There’s a forensic pathology eCourse that covers topics including ‘autopsy basics,’ death by poison gases, death by fire, toxicology and drug deaths, and electrocution.
‘Body broker’ industry in the US is an unregulated free-for-all where firms pocket millions by trading in cadavers donated to science
Thousands of Americans donated loved ones’ bodies to science for the purposes of medical research, though critics say that the ‘body broker’ industry is an unregulated free-for-all
Each year, thousands of Americans donate their bodies in the belief they are contributing to science.
In fact, many are also unwittingly contributing to commerce, their bodies traded as raw material in a largely unregulated national market.
Businesses who collect these bodies are known as ‘body brokers’, are they not regulated by any government agency. They can legally do anything they want with the bodies.
‘There is a big market for dead bodies,’ said Ray Madoff, a Boston College Law School professor who studies how U.S. laws treat the dead.
‘We know very little about who is acquiring these bodies and what they are doing with them.’
Body brokers are also known as non-transplant tissue banks.
They are distinct from the organ and tissue transplant industry, which the US government closely regulates.
Selling hearts, kidneys and tendons for transplant is illegal.
But no federal law governs the sale of cadavers or body parts for use in research or education.
Few state laws provide any oversight whatsoever, and almost anyone, regardless of expertise, can dissect and sell human body parts.
‘The current state of affairs is a free-for-all,’ Angela McArthur, who directs the body donation program at the University of Minnesota Medical School and formerly chaired her state’s anatomical donation commission, told Reuters.
‘We are seeing similar problems to what we saw with grave-robbers centuries ago,’ she said, referring to the 19th-century practice of obtaining cadavers in ways that violated the dignity of the dead.
‘I don’t know if I can state this strongly enough,’ McArthur said.
‘What they are doing is profiting from the sale of humans.’
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.
‘People who have financial means get the chance to have the moral, ethical and spiritual debates about which method to choose,’ said Dawn Vander Kolk, an Illinois hospice social worker.
‘But if they don’t have money, they may end up with the option of last resort: body donation.’
Poor people are offered the chance to donate next of kin’s bodies in exchange for a free cremation and the avoidance of costly burials and funerals
Donated bodies play an essential role in medical education, training and research.
Cadavers and body parts are used to train medical students, doctors, nurses and dentists.
Surgeons say no mannequin or computer simulation can replicate the tactile response and emotional experience of practicing on human body parts.
Paramedics, for example, use human heads and torsos to learn how to insert breathing tubes.
Researchers rely on donated human body parts to develop new surgical instruments, techniques and implants; and to develop new medicines and treatments for diseases.
‘The need for human bodies is absolutely vital,’ said Chicago doctor Armand Krikorian, past president of the American Federation for Medical Research.
He cited a recent potential cure for Type 1 diabetes developed by studying pancreases from body donors.
‘It’s a kind of treatment that would have never come to light if we did not have whole-body donation.’
As with other commodities, prices for bodies and body parts fluctuate with market conditions.
Generally, a broker can sell a donated human body for about $3,000 to $5,000, though prices sometimes top $10,000.
But a broker will typically divide a cadaver into six parts to meet customer needs.
Internal documents from seven brokers show a range of prices for body parts: $3,575 for a torso with legs; $500 for a head; $350 for a foot; $300 for a spine.
Body brokers solicit donors both online and through funeral homes, hospices, and hospitals. They offer a free cremation to families who are then invited to donate their loved ones’ bodies to science.
The families typically seek permission from next of kin before their deaths.
After death, the broker assesses the body’s medical history and physical condition, including weight, surgical implants, and scars. The corpse is also tested for infectious diseases.
The body broker than either retains the whole cadaver or dissects it. Most bodies are cut into six parts, such as the head, torso, arms, and legs.
If requested, a portion of the body not sold for research and education is cremated within weeks and returned to the next of kin.
The body broker than solicits orders from clients, such as medical device companies, who pay for body parts for purposes of training.
Unused or rented body parts are returned to the broker for potential reuse while body parts sold to clients are cremated after research or training and then disposed.