Multnomah County set to ban for-profit displays of human remains
Last October, about 70 people gathered in a Portland hotel ballroom to watch the dissection of a corpse.
The wife of the man whose body was dissected says she had no idea her husband's remains would be on display as part of an event with a paying audience.
Now the Multnomah County Board of Commissioners is working to prevent similar events from happening.
The board unanimously voted Thursday, April 17, to advance an ordinance that would make it illegal to accept payment for displaying human remains, with exceptions for funerals and medical or educational purposes.
The ordinance would allow the county to issue fines of $1,000 per violation per day. The county also may seek costs incurred by enforcing the ordinance. The board can adopt the ordinance officially at its meeting April 21.
Calling in to urge the board to approve the ordinance Thursday was Elsie Saunders, the wife of the 98-year-old Louisiana man, David Saunders, whose body was used at the event.
"I'm deeply hurt and frustrated that I was unable to save my husband from the violation of his remains," Elsie Saunders said. "I was duped by selfish and immoral people for the sake of their personal monetary gain."
When her husband, a veteran of World War II and the Korean War, died last August, Elsie Saunders planned to donate the body to Louisiana State University for medical use. The university didn't accept the body, however, because David Saunders died of COVID-19.
Elsie Saunders then donated her husband's body to the Las Vegas-based company Med Ed Labs, thinking it would be used for scientific purposes. She had been referred to the company by a Baton Rouge funeral home. Med Ed Labs acquires human cadavers for medical training, according to its website.
Elsie Saunders later learned her husband's body had been acquired from Med Ed Labs by the company Death Science, which used the body for a "Cadaver Lab Class" it hosted in a downtown Portland hotel.
County officials say Death Science had no credentials. Death Science has not responded to the Portland Tribune's request for comment.
The Seattle television station King 5 News published video footage of the event, including the dissection of David Saunders' body, after a journalist attended.
David Saunders' body is blurred out in the video as a man wearing glasses, a short-sleeve shirt, a face mask and wrist-length gloves leads the dissection and handles the body. An event attendee can be seen putting on rubber gloves and touching the body. The man conducting the dissection appears to hold parts of the body in his hands and place them on a surface.
East Baton Rouge District Attorney Hillar C. Moore, who spoke to the board Thursday, went with David Saunders' nephew to identify the body after it was returned to a Baton Rouge morgue. Moore said he has attended thousands of autopsies.
"To see what had occurred to this hero's body," Moore said, "this body was not treated like any body is treated in any legitimate autopsy."
Elsie Saunders told the board she struggled to understand the "macabre curiosity" that would make someone willing to pay the $500 per ticket reportedly charged by the event's organizers.
"Could they not realize that this was once a lively, caring, loving human being?" she asked. "Added to my grief for his loss is the vision in my mind of his naked and defenseless body being dismembered like a butcher preparing an animal carcass for sale."
Multiple county commissioners bowed their heads, covered their mouths with their hands and appeared to wipe tears away while Elsie Saunders spoke.
Kimberly DiLeo, the county's chief medicolegal death investigator, told the board Thursday that Elsie Saunders learned of the pay-per-view dissection of her husband after being contacted by a reporter. A wristband on David Saunders' body at the event identified him, she said.
DiLeo, who led efforts to draft the ordinance, said she tried unsuccessfully to stop the event from happening.
"No family should bear the horror or guilt associated with learning that their loved one was placed on display for paying members of the public to autopsy and touch their organs," DiLeo said.
She convinced the manager of the hotel where the event was initially scheduled to cancel it, she said. Event organizers then relocated the event to another site. When DiLeo urged that hotel to cancel the event, the manager refused, she said.
DiLeo also reached out to the Portland Police Bureau and the Oregon Medical Board, but neither agency had the legal authority to stop the event, she said.
Med Ed Labs "stated they were unaware (David Saunders) would be used for public display in front of a paying audience," DiLeo said. "Although, a simple Google search would've revealed that Death Science had no credentials."
Obteen Nassiri, manager of Med Ed Labs, said in an interview that Death Sciences officials told him David Saunders' body would be used in a training for students, coroners and other medical professionals involved in death science.
They didn't tell him the event would be accessible to a general audience and that people would be charged to attend, he said.
"We had no idea," said Obteen Nassiri, manager of Med Ed Labs. "If we knew that, there's no way we would have approved that."
Since the event, Med Ed Labs has implemented policy changes such as researching the entities that receive donated bodies more carefully and ensuring the identities of body donors are kept private, Nassiri said. While Med Ed Labs doesn't tell families of body donors what entities ultimately receive donated bodies, the company explains what procedures the bodies could be used in, he said.
The company follows laws and regulations very carefully, Nassiri said. "Our donors, we respect them to the maximum," he added.
Oregon Health & Science University's body donation program supports 2,000 students studying medicine, dentistry, nursing and other fields every year, said Tamara Ostervoss, a licensed funeral director and embalmer who directs the program.
Ostervoss told the board the unethical use of whole-body donors harms the credibility of legitimate programs and hinders the education of health care professionals.
The contract Elsie Saunders signed to donate her husband's body left ambiguity as to what would happen with the body, Moore said.
He added that he was dismayed to learn states are "severely lacking" statutes prohibiting how David Saunders' body was used.
County commissioners each denounced how David Saunders' body was used.
"Disregard for the deceased's dignity and respect is abhorrent," said Commissioner Jessica Vega Pederson. "It's just awful."
Commissioners Sharon Meieran and Lori Stegmann both expressed hope that criminal penalties could be used against violators of the county's ordinance.
Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury said the board plans to raise the issue with lawmakers at the state and federal levels.
"I can't imagine how many times this has happened elsewhere and no one raised the flag, no one brought it to the attention of lawmakers who could do something about it," Kafoury said. "I'm horrified to know that there are other families out there that may not even know that this has taken place with their loved ones."
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