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With no state oversight, Mass. medical school morgues are vulnerable to black market for bodies

Pine Hill Cemetery, in Tewksbury, Mass., where many individuals who donate their bodies to university medical morgues are buried. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
Pine Hill Cemetery, in Tewksbury, Mass., where many individuals who donate their bodies to university medical morgues are buried. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

Medical school morgues — like the one at Harvard where a manager is accused of stealing and selling body parts for tens of thousands of dollars — face no state oversight in Massachusetts, state officials said Thursday.

So-called “anatomical gift programs” at Harvard, Tufts, UMass and other medical schools, take private donations of whole bodies for medical research, including for the training of student doctors. But it appears no greater authority outside the schools monitors their procedures for keeping bodies secure.

As Harvard and its donor families grappled with the shocking news this week, critics called for greater oversight.

“Just like you wouldn’t leave opioids in an unlocked drawer in a pharmacy, you need to protect the bodies of our loved ones,” said Patti Muldoon, president of the Funeral Consumers Alliance of Eastern Massachusetts.

She said the state should be doing more to deter body thefts and to track cadavers, from medical donation programs to ultimate cremation or burials. The Harvard case laid bare a grim reality: there’s a black market for human remains.

“We must understand the economics of the situation,” Muldoon said. “There must be oversight to counter the income one can make from selling off body parts.”

Harvard’s morgue manager of nearly 30 years, Cedric Lodge, was arrested Wednesday by the FBI. He stands accused of treating the morgue like a storefront, letting potential customers browse body parts and bringing home skin and brains to be shipped out to people across the country. Lodge and his wife, of Goffstown, N.H., and several others are facing federal theft and conspiracy charges.

Denise Lodge allegedly received more than $37,000 just from one customer, according to the indictment, filed in federal court in Pennsylvania.

Speaking on WBUR’s Radio Boston Thursday, Gov. Maura Healey said the state currently has no oversight of medical school morgues. “We’ll take a look at it, obviously,” she said.

Healey said the state does not plan to conduct its own investigation, but instead will let the federal cases play out.

Neither the state Department of Public Health nor the medical examiner’s office have any responsibility for the medical school morgues, spokespeople for those departments said. DPH does have oversight authority over hospital morgues — just not those at medical schools.

Other states, such as Florida and Maryland, do have some state oversight of anatomical gift programs through state anatomy boards.

There appears to be no national oversight of medical school practices with dead bodies. The Association of American Medical Colleges said it has no role in medical schools’ body donations or how they manage their morgues.

The American Association for Anatomy, in a statement Thursday, called for reforms to prevent something like the Harvard thefts from happening again.

“To ensure the ethical, legal, and responsible operation of body donation programs nationwide, the AAA calls upon government and law enforcement agencies, academic institutions, and regulatory bodies for both justice and collaborative reform to prevent the misuse and commodification of human body donors,” the statement said.

Law enforcement experts say a lack of oversight perpetuates a black market in human remains.

Though it’s a crime to obtain body parts through theft or fraud, the purchase and sale of human remains is largely legal in the United States. Native American remains are protected under the Native American Graves and Repatriation Act, and a few states like Tennessee and Louisiana restrict how human remains are imported and exported.

The federal indictment provides a rare glimpse into this trade of human bones and organs, or what collectors in this shadowy arena call “oddities.”

Jeremy Lee Pauley, who was charged with purchasing stolen goods from Lodge, describes himself as a “lead preservation specialist of retired medical specimens” on his website. The site shows rows of fetuses preserved in jars, as well as decorated human skulls. Pauley also posts photos of his work on his Facebook page, where he has over 5,000 followers.

The court documents show how people interested in purchasing human remains connect and transact business on the internet. Candace Chapman Scott — who investigators allege stole human remains from a morgue in Little Rock, Ark. — reached out to Pauley after seeing his photos online.

“I follow your page and work and LOVE it,” she wrote him in October 2021, according to the indictment. “Just out of curiosity, would you know anyone in the market for a fully in tact [sic], embalmed brain?”

Pauley expressed interest, and Scott offered him two brains and a human heart at a cost of $1,200. “You are literally on the same page because that was going to be my offer lol!,” he wrote. He sent her the money on PayPal.

Pauley worked with another client, Katrina Maclean of Kat’s Creepy Creations in Peabody, to tan human skin into leather. Maclean allegedly procured the skin from Lodge at Harvard Medical School.

Diana Mansfield, who owns a bone shop called The Bone Room, in Los Alamitos, Calif., said stories like these cast a negative light on the whole collector community. She said human bones make up just 10-20% of her sales, and she feels most people buy and sell legally.

“The ones I work with do,” she wrote in an email. “Whenever someone asks me for something I see as disturbing, I simply hit ‘delete.’ ”

Harvard said it’s conducting its own investigation into what happened at its morgue and has appointed an “outside panel of experts” to evaluate the program and morgue policies and practices.

Harvard Medical School has declined to comment beyond a statement from the dean, calling the alleged crime a “betrayal.” Representatives from other medical schools in the area, including Tufts, UMass and Boston University, declined to speak even generally about how their anatomical gift donation programs worked.

Under state law, anyone over 18 can donate their body for research, with an emphasis on “donation” — it’s illegal to pay for a body. Before dying, people sign up with the individual medical school to which they wish to give their body.

After death, the person responsible for making arrangements usually calls the school, who will say whether its program can accept the body. After the body has served its research purpose, families have options, according to Harvard’s website. They can reclaim the person’s remains or have the school perform a cremation. The cremated remains can be returned to the family or they can be buried at Pine Hill Cemetery in Tewksbury.

Pine Hill Cemetery, in Tewksbury, Mass. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

Harvard holds a memorial service each fall for those who have donated their bodies. Other medical schools have similar practices.

It’s not clear whether Lodge was taking bodies that should have been cremated and buried in Tewksbury.

Muldoon, the Funeral Consumers Alliance president, said people may be less inclined to donate their bodies in the wake of the Harvard scandal, unless there is more state oversight of what happens to bodies after the research is complete. (Muldoon said her sister donated her body to a medical school.)

What happened at Harvard, she said, is like something out of a Charles Dickens story about grave robbers.

“The sanctity of this person’s body is not being honored or adequately taken care of,” she said. “The state needs to take management control and coordinate care at this end of things and provide regulation and guidance.”

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2023 WBUR. To see more, visit WBUR.

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