Local Body Snatchers Are Part of Long Tradition

“I collected bones from charnel-houses…. The dissecting room and the slaughterhouse furnished many of my materials; and often did my human nature turn with loathing from my occupation…. It was on a dreary night of November that I beheld the accomplishment of my toil…. How can I describe my emotions at this catastrophe, or how delineate the wretch whom with such infinite pains and care I had endeavored to form?”
A young writer named Mary Shelley put these words into Dr. Frankenstein’s mouth in 1816. Since then, countless movies have depicted grave robbers snatching bodies. In fact, the practice preceded “Frankenstein” by centuries. During the Middle Ages, the Catholic Church stood against dissection of dead bodies. Some popes even excommunicated physicians who tried it. Medical advances depended at least partially on stealing and secretly studying cadavers.
In modern times, dissecting a human body has long been a standard part of med school education. At a university where I worked as a young man, donations of dead folks were so plentiful that keeping the cadavers identified became a challenge. Donors were promised the ashes of their loved ones. Fact was that all the used corpses were cremated together. Every donor got a box of ashes… but whose? The issue came to a bit of a crisis when one such donor, transferring the ashes to an urn, discovered a dental appliance the fires had failed to burn. My hubby never wore this thing, she complained to the med school dean. Whoops.
You might be surprised to learn that the first corneal transplant took place in 1905. Great leaps forward in heart and lung transplants took place in the 1960s, when new technologies and anti-rejection drugs came together in the OR. As waiting lists lengthened, a new industry was born.
As with any business, organ transplantation spawned a black market. Urban legends — some true, some fictional — keep surfacing. In an article entitled “Postmodern cannibalism; black market trade of human organs,” writer Nancy Scheoer-Huges claims, “Today, China stands alone in continuing the use of organs of executed prisoners for transplant surgery.” She made that claim in 2000. Since then, reports of poor people in places like India selling their kidneys abound. Photos attest to their truth. Less likely are the tales out of Las Vegas of guys bedding down with ladies of the night, only to awaken in bathtubs filled with ice, relieved of a kidney.
Last week we learned that this black market flourished until recently right here in Greater Philadelphia. Three local funeral directors stand charged with dismembering more than a thousand corpses and selling assorted body parts to doctors who transplanted them in their patients. The corpses came from New York, New Jersey and our own Keystone State. The roster of Philadelphians runs to 244.
Five Philly hospitals and a total of 41 across all of Pennsylvania implanted the supposedly unsanitary parts provided by Biomedical Tissue Services, the rogue undertakers’ outfit. Bodies allegedly sat for days — one for 113 hours — without benefit of refrigeration, before being “harvested.” Fifteen hours after death is the outer limit set by legitimate medical protocols. The grand jury’s report comments that the three, who made nearly $4 million in little more than a year and half, “took businesses normally associated with compassion and caring and perverted them into something ghoulish, greedy, dangerous, and criminal.”
Like Frankenstein’s experiment, this enterprise has ended badly. These boys are bound for long jail terms and heavy fines, not to mention civil suits that will strip them of any ill-gotten gains their defense attorneys fail to gobble up.
At least they are likely to survive their criminal justice gauntlet. Mary Shelley sent her protagonist to a more grisly fate. After being rejected as too abhorrent to be loved, the monster takes his revenge, killing Dr. F.’s bride on their wedding night and wiping out the rest of his family. With little left to lose, Frankenstein pursues the monster all the way to the Arctic, where whalers find the hapless doctor.
Frankie’s last words to the whaling captain, before leaping onto an ice floe and drifting into the darkness, are, “Soon these burning miseries will be extinct. I shall ascend my funeral pile triumphantly and exult in the agony of the torturing flames.”
I doubt the three Philly funeral directors feel such remorse. Where’s that ice floe?
Jim Castagnera, formerly of Jim Thorpe, is the Associate Provost/Associate Counsel at Rider University and co-author of a new novel about the Molly Maguires available at http://www.lulu.com.

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