The blurry video showed a cadaver on a table in a hotel ballroom. A man bent over the body and addressed an audience that had paid to see the dissection of a corpse. Some people put on gloves and floated, peered and touched each other.
This was the body of David Saunders, a 98-year-old Louisiana man. It was not, his wife said, what she intended when she donated his body for medical examination after he died of Covid-19 in August.
“My impression was that it was strictly for medical science, not that his body would be put on display,” Mr Saunders’ wife, Elsie Saunders, said in an interview. She described the event as “morbid,” said she’d heard about it through news reports, and “tried to pull myself together.”
The dissection was reported last week by King 5 News, a Seattle television station that said a journalist attended the event. The station released images of the Portland, Oregon hotel, stating that members of the public had paid up to $500 each to attend.
“Five hundred seats for people to watch – this is not science, this is commerce,” said Ms Saunders.
Her husband’s body was out of focus in the images, although at one point it appeared that a man leading the dissection was holding body parts in his hands and arranging them on a surface.
A Showpass page advertised the October 17 event as a “cadaver lab” class, “put on by” a company called Death Science and a second organization, the Oddities & Curiosities Expo.
Kyle Miller, who served as Death Science spokesperson until Thursday, said in an email on Wednesday that the company was selling tickets to the general public. Seventy people attended a “workshop” where “participants could observe an anatomical dissection of an entire human cadaver,” he said.
Jeremy Ciliberto, the founder of Death Science, said his goal was to “create an educational experience for individuals interested in learning more about human anatomy.”
“We understand that this event has caused unnecessary stress for the family and we apologize for that,” he said.
Lieutenant Nathan Sheppard, a spokesman for the Portland Police Department, said detectives consulted the Oregon Department of Justice and the Multnomah County District Attorney’s Office. He said the office had concluded that while the dissection may violate civil law, there were “no criminal laws that speak directly to such circumstances.”
The Oregon Department of Health did not respond to requests for comment. Kimberly DiLeo, the lead investigator of Multnomah County’s drug-legal death, said the brain and organs had been removed during what she described as a public “pay-per-view event.”
“It’s completely immoral and unethical,” she said. The provincial leadership, she said, is “actively investigating” whether it has broken any laws, such as misuse of a corpse.
Martin McAllister, the general manager of the Portland Marriott Downtown Waterfront hotel, said in an email that his team was “grossly misled by the customer about the nature of this event.”
Ms. Saunders said that after her husband died, she tried to donate his body to Louisiana State University medical school. But she said the school rejected the body because he had died of a contagious disease.
She then turned to a funeral home in Baton Rouge, who referred her to Med Ed Labs in Nevada, an organization that claims to supply cadavers to military, government, commercial and nonprofit organizations.
“They never told me they would sell his body,” Ms. Saunders said, referring to the paperwork she signed at Med Ed Labs. “Under no circumstances would I show my husband’s body.”
Med Ed Labs denied any wrongdoing, saying that Ms. Saunders had given her permission to donate the body and that the organization had no knowledge that the remains would be used for such an event.
Miller said on Wednesday that Death Science is hosting educational courses and events for the public in areas such as forensics and anatomy. A similar event was scheduled for October 31 in Seattle, but was canceled. Med Ed Labs and Death Science had dissolved their partnership, he said.
On Thursday afternoon, Mr. Miller said his own “engagement” to Death Science had ended.
The Oddities & Curiosities Expo processed tickets, Mr. Miller had said, with prices ranging from $100 to $500.
In an email, Oddities & Curiosities Expo will not let you know if it has processed tickets. It said Death Science was the host and organizer and the event was not taking place at any of its exhibits. In another location, the Expo said, Death Science was a vendor who “sold their art.”
Mr Miller said Death Science had no access to any personal information, including the donation agreement.
He said Med Ed Labs provided the cadaver, tools, and anatomist who led the class. It booked the Portland hotel location and was aware that those in attendance “were not exclusively medical students,” he said.
Obteen Nassiri, the manager of Med Ed Labs, said the organization believed the body would be used for medical education to students and doctors. He said Death Science contacted the lab and said it needed a cadaver to “teach students anatomy.”
“We did some preliminary research and they were trying to teach students the science of death,” he said. “I believed the body would be used for anatomical dissection and educational purposes.”
Med Ed Labs bought the body from the Baton Rouge funeral home and shipped it to Las Vegas and then Portland, he said.
Mr Nassiri said he spoke to Ms Saunders on Wednesday.
“She was very upset that this company got behind us and sold tickets to this event to people who were not medical personnel and students,” he said.
Death Science had paid about $10,000 for the entire event, including use of the cadaver, transportation and personnel, he said. The body has since been returned to Las Vegas en route to Louisiana. Nassiri said Med Ed Labs would pay for the cremation and an urn.
Tamara Ostervoss, the director of the Body Donation Program at Oregon Health & Science University, said she had never heard of an event like the one at the hotel.
“Obviously the ethics of that are incredibly questionable,” she said, adding that an event like this “damages public confidence, and that has far-reaching consequences.”
The Seattle news story, which spread to national and international outlets, quickly sparked outrage, echoing previous controversies over the handling of human remains in public institutions.
Last year, protesters gathered at the University of Pennsylvania to discuss how anthropologists had handled the bones of a young bomb victim. The bones were featured in a video for an online course, “Real Bones: Adventures in Forensic Anthropology.” In 2015, the University of Edinburgh “divided opinion” by holding workshops introducing the public to “corpse material,” said Carla Valentine, a curator at the University of London’s pathology museum.
Ten years earlier, when the “Bodies” exhibit opened in New York City, the company running the exhibit was criticized for using cadavers from China. It admitted it could not prove that the bodies were not those of prisoners who may have been tortured or executed.
Rina Knoeff, a professor at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands who studies the history of medicine, said public dissections as entertainment dated at least to the Renaissance.
“I think maybe it’s the same kind of sentiment that drew people to public executions as well,” she said. “It might be the thrill of sitting there and watching someone get cut to pieces.”
Derrick Bryson Taylor reporting contributed.