Body Brokers: Inside America's Underground Trade in Human Remains

By Annie Cheney. Broadway Books, 205 pp, $33.95, hardcover.

A loved one's body has been willed to science. What comes to mind? Perhaps medical students respectfully dissecting the corpse, or researchers creating life-saving procedures or products. Ask friends of the dead and, as U.S. journalist Annie Cheney puts it, “none of them imagines that their relative's torso will end up taped to a gurney at a Trump resort.” 

But this is routine for many of the estimated “tens of thousands”  of bodies in the U.S. annually channelled through the grisly, legally and ethically murky, and highly profitable industry exposed in Body Brokers: Inside America's Underground Trade in Human Remains.

First writing on body donations for a retirees' magazine, Cheney viewed the practice benignly: medical research saves lives; we all benefit. But repeated stonewalling on key questions””What do bodies cost? Who provides them, and how? Do the families know what happens to them?””inspired three years' investigation and an award-winning exposé in Harper's magazine, expanded here into this chillingly compelling book.

Finding that U.S. organ-donor regulations prevent most abuse, Cheney focused on the federally unregulated use of bodies in research and education, with some scary bits on human-tissue issues.

In the last 50 years, demand has outpaced supply, with the rise in medical-school enrollment, minimally invasive surgeries (requiring anatomical accuracy), and use of human-tissue products. So major medical companies need more legs and torsos to anchor the sunny training junkets they host demonstrating their latest tools and techniques. And where there's need, there's greed.

And so we have body brokers, people like Michael Brown, a California funeral director who built a body-parts business with partner Allen Tyler, an experienced Texas diener who could skillfully carve 10 whole corpses into parts over a weekend. Or Augie Perna, founder of several dominant supply companies””one briefly called Limbs & Things””the man who brought the torsos to the Trump, and a frequent buyer from Brown, who is now serving 20 years in prison for mutilating bodies.