The Horrors of Body Donation



What rights do you have to your body when you die? None. But your family gets some. They get the right to preserve and dispose. They can choose whether to bury, cremate, or even cryo-preserve you. And they can choose whether to donate your body to science. Usually, your family will follow your wishes. So what happens when you want to donate?

If you want to donate, you have two options: donate with a specific institution, like a research facility or a medical school, or donate to a body broker. If you want to donate to a specific institution you have to determine which institution and ensure that they have a current need. There are also many requirements that have to be fulfilled, and some institutions may refuse a body if the donor had not consented before death, so a lot of research may be required for prospective donors and next-of-kin. The real benefit to this option is that you can choose a specific research goal or geographic area that you want to help.

The second option, a body broker, is much easier. With a body broker you do not have to worry about contacting multiple different institutions because they will do the work to determine which places need bodies. All you need to do is make a quick google search for “donate my body,” and that will turn up many results. But in most cases, the body brokers find you. Body brokers will work with funeral homes and pay them referral fees if they convince a family to donate a body. Mainly, they go after families who are unable to afford cremation because body brokers are willing to pay for or subsidize cremation fees for these families. While offering to pay for cremation may seem generous, you should ask, where are body brokers getting the money for this? They dismember and sell the donated bodies. A body broker can sell a body for about $3,000 to $5,000. Considering that cremations can be less than $1,000, and referral fees can range from $300 to $1,430, body brokers can make about $1,000 to $3,000 from just one body.

Additionally, this pipeline from funeral homes to body brokers to research institutions is completely unregulated, except for the restriction on sale of organs for transplant into another. The lack of regulation has led to a host of mistreatments with almost no recourse. In 2017, a worker for Southern Nevada Donor Services was found thawing a human torso by spraying it with a hose. The only charge was a minor pollution charge for washing pieces of human tissue and blood into gutters. In 2016, investigators raided Arthur Rathburn’s warehouse and found human bodies dismembered using a chainsaw rather than surgical instruments and stored in buckets. He was arrested for fraud because he sold donor bodies that were infected with HIV and Hepatitis to medical schools. In 2014, the FBI raided a warehouse for the Biological Resource Center. After seeing the conditions of the donated bodies, the FBI agents required trauma therapy. The founder of the Biological Resource Center was charged with violating donor consent agreements. One of those violations included donating bodies for military blast testing without proper consent. In all of these cases nothing could be done for how the body brokers handled the human remains.

But body brokers are not the only culprit. In 2021, the police found decomposing bodies in a storage unit because the CEO of the Hawaii Institute of Anatomy defaulted on the rent. No charges were brought. The lack of accountability in these cases sends a strong message to body brokers, research institutions, medical schools, and everyone else involved in handling donated bodies that it does not matter how they treat donated bodies.

So how do we fix this? It’s simple. We need more regulation, more oversight, and more accountability. Body brokers are able to treat donated bodies with a lack of respect because there is no law telling them they cannot. So we need to make a law. Whether it’s federal, state, or both, we need our legislators to make body brokers either civilly or criminally liable for this kind of treatment.


Suggested Citation: Akshat Shah, The Horrors of Body Donation, Cornell J.L. & Pub. Pol’y, The Issue Spotter, (March 21, 2024),


Akshat Shah is a second-year law student at Cornell Law School. He graduated from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute with degrees in computer science and economics. Besides being the Senior Online Editor for the Cornell Law School’s Journal of Public Policy, Akshat is the co-vice president of the South Asian Law Student Association.