For those who donate their body to science most probably expect for their corporeal forms to be used in dissection classes at universities. But, there are times when a cadaver might not end up where it was expected. Recently a public dissection was performed on a World War II and Korean War veteran in something like a sideshow event, despite his last wishes for his body to be used to for scientific purposes. Once the story broke on the news his family members spoke out that they didn’t believe that a sideshow event was what he had in mind when he signed up for body donation.

photo of a modern morgue
Via: P.J.L Laurens/Wiki Commons

98-year-old David Saunders was a grandfather and a military veteran who died in August 2021 from COVID-19 in his home state of Louisiana. His widow carried out his final wishes by donating his body to science like he had wanted. The family have said that his spirit of service stayed with him long after he left the armed forces which is why he adamant that his body be donated for science. However his widow, Elsie Saunders, was horrified to learn that instead of her husband’s body being used to train future doctors, it had been part of a public exhibition.

In Portland, Oregon, in October of 2021 a hotel ballroom was rented at a Mariott. A group of people paid up to $500 each for tickets to an event that was advertised through the Oddities and Curiosities Expo. The group putting on the event, however, was, run by Jeremy Ciliberto.

Ciliberto reportedly told news outlets that he pays more than $10,000 for each body that is used in his public dissections. The actual cutting in this case was carried out by a retired medical professor. In front of people who wanted to learn more about death and anatomy Saunders’ brain was removed and his other internal organs taken from his body in an hours-long procedure.

photo of mortuary school morgue
Moturary school morgue, circa 1913. Via: I.C. Henn/Library of Congress

Attendees of the event claim that nothing untoward or disrespectful happened at the public dissection. But, the chief medical examiner for the Multnomah Country Coroner, Kimberly DiLeo, disagreed, saying, “We feel that this was not respectful and certainly not ethical.”

How did the body end up in a public performance instead of a medical school? When bodies are donated for science they pass through clearing house science labs that then find places for the bodies. In this instance the lab sold the body for a performance instead of a college class, but it remains to be seen how much of the event or the organization they were aware of beforehand.

Elsie Saunders had attempted to donate the body directly to Louisiana State University, but the request was denied due to her husband’s cause of death from COVID-19. After she found a place to donate her husband’s body she was given paperwork certifying that his cadaver would only be used for science. According to Louisiana newspaper, The Advocate, she said, “I have all this paperwork that says his body would be used for science — nothing about this commercialization of his death.”

The body was sold through Med Ed Labs, an organization that the funeral service through which Saunders’ body was transferred through has now cut ties with.

1890s painting of an autopsy
Study for “Autopsy at the Hôtel-Dieu”, 1876. Via: Henri Gervex/National Gallery of Art

In the Middle Ages bodies were first used in scientific demonstrations and were increasingly used in the 18th and 19th centuries to teach medical students. Since then there have many concerns over the dissection of human remains. The Hare and Burke scandal in Scotland became infamous since gravediggers could command hefty prices for their ill-gotten corpses. The 1788 Doctors’ Riot in New York started because the bodies of indigent people were being used in medical schools without the consent of the deceased or their families.

In the US in the 20th century body donation has largely addressed the issue of consent and in the 1960s and 1970s it became far more common, along with becoming an organ donor. In some areas of the world cadavers used for science are still taken from a pool of unclaimed bodies, though this is rarely the case in the US according to a study from German medical students on worldwide cadaver sources. It was only in 2012 that the International Federation of Associations of Anatomists (IFAA) began recommending that only bodies that were donated be used for science.

A second public autopsy event, scheduled to take place in Seattle on Halloween of 2021, was canceled after news of the Portland event and the family’s reaction got out. Following the discovery of how his body had been used the family was able to request that his body be returned to Louisiana. But, they were vigilant to make sure the body that came home was actually Saunders’ after all that had happened. Upon arrival a memorial service and cremation were planned.