Last week, two executives of UCLA’s Willed Body Program were charged with selling body parts from cadavers that had been donated for research. Going back as far as 2004, UCLA has allegedly been involved with sawing some 800 bodies into pieces and selling them to medical research companies. The actions are not only in violation of federal law, but also are a breach of the contract that the university had with donor relatives.

Charged with the crime are Henry Reid, the former director of the Willed Body Program, and his affiliate at UCLA, Ernest Nelson. Both pled not guilty. The university has since looked more closely at the problem, including background checks of those individuals working in the program.

After sawing off heads, shoulders, arms, legs, and other body parts, the pieces were then sold to various research firms. Nelson said he paid Reid with cashiers’ checks and subsequently put the body parts up for sale. This, despite signed contracts by university officials guaranteeing family members that their decedents’ remains would never be sold. Many of these donor families have expressed outrage and have promised that their indignation will manifest itself over the next few years through lengthy and high-profile lawsuits.

UCLA’s Willed Body Program came under fire before, in the 1990s, for “disposing of thousands of bodies without dignity.” It was the same Henry Reid who was hired to restore the program’s reputation. Writing in the campus newspaper, The Daily Bruin, Rotem Ben-Shachar notes that some of those “thousands of bodies” were buried in landfills and often mixed with other cadavers. The demand for bodies parts is increasing, writes Ben-Shachar, calling for the obvious: stricter state and federal laws.

While it is currently illegal to sell body parts and body tissue for profit in the U.S., there are no laws against charging acquisition fees and handling fees for body parts. If body parts cross state lines, then the feds become involved. UCLA has also set up a hotline for relatives who want to know if the bodies of their loved ones were carved up and then sold like so many pork loins.

Honoring the bodies of the dead is a timeless custom – from the solemnity of ancient burial procedures to the Marine Corps’ “Leave No Man Behind” tradition. Some of the insensitivity displayed at UCLA can perhaps be attributed to the dispassion that doctors, morticians, and lab technicians must acquire in order to function on a day-to-day basis. What is needed at UCLA and other institutions with body donor programs is much tighter control and closer monitoring of those in charge.

American writer Ambrose Bierce captured the sardonic nature of the recent disgraceful events in a poem he wrote in the early 1900s:

By means of the Mummy, mankind, it is said,

Attests to the gods its respect for the dead.

We plunder his tomb, be he sinner or saint,

Distill him for physic and grind him for paint,

Exhibit for money his poor, shrunken frame,

And with levity flock to the scene of the shame.

O, tell me ye gods, for the use of my rhyme:

For respecting the dead what’s the limit of time?

– Chase.Hamil

Be Sociable, Share!