SEATTLE — “Where’s the body?”
That’s the question a Louisiana widow asked after she learned her husband’s body was publicly autopsied at an event in Portland, Oregon last month.
Elsie Saunders, 92, of Baton Rouge, Louisiana learned of the event from a KING 5 investigation that went undercover at the cadaver class in a Marriott hotel ballroom on Oct. 17. Elsie thought her husband David Saunders’ body had been donated to science, but it ended up being dissected in front of a live, paying audience.
“Oh, I think is reprehensible,” Elsie Saunders said during a phone call. “I think that this – they are using my husband's body. Like he's a performing bear or something.”
Event organizers sold tickets for up to $500 to the public to view in-person the autopsy and dissection of a human body. The event is part of the Oddities and Curiosities Expo, which travels across the country. A similar event scheduled for Halloween day in Seattle was canceled.
David Saunders, 98, had registered to donate his body for medical research at Louisiana State University, but Elsie Saunders said the university wouldn’t take it, because he died of COVID-19.
David Saunders’ body ended up at Las Vegas-based Med Ed Labs, which solicits body donations for medical research. The lab sold Saunders’ body to the autopsy event, which was organized by DeathScience.org Founder Jeremy Ciliberto.
Death Science recently sent an email to attendees of the Portland event, recommending they get tested for COVID-19, as they were unaware Saunders had died from the virus.
"This was not something that we anticipated, as Med Ed Labs should have provided this information to us directly and we would not have proceeded further if this information would have been provided," the email reads.
According to the CDC, risk of infection from a cadaver is low. DeathScience.org also claims in the email that the body was disinfected by the embalming process, but recommended everyone who was present at the live autopsy get tested for COVID-19 as a precaution.
The company said it would not be working with Med Ed Labs on future events.
Obteen Nassiri, a Med Ed Labs supervisor, said Ciliberto lied to his company about why his event wanted to purchase Saunders’ body. Nassiri said the lab didn’t know Saunders’ body would be used for a paying audience.
“We do not engage the donors’ bodies in any kind of shows that it was involved with,” Nassiri said. “We don't do anything like that.”
Ciliberto, who has no professional credentials, said it was up to Med Ed Labs to obtain consent for Saunders’ body to be used in this way.
However, Saunders’ widow says that didn’t happen – and Elsie Saunders wants to ensure it never happens again to another family.
“You're totally helpless when you don't know what's happened,” Saunders said. “And I didn't – I had no idea what happened until you communicated it with me.”
Church Funeral Services and Crematory, which handled the preparation of David Saunders’ body before it was given to Med Ed Labs, told Elsie Saunders it would track down her husband’s remains and cremate them for free. The funeral home then plans to return him to Elsie.
Editor’s Note: After our investigation aired, the Oddities and Curiosities Expo provided an official statement, which provides in part: “Our only role was to provide a ticketing platform for Death Science, which was the proprietor of the class. The Oddities & Curiosities Expo made no profit from this demonstration. The cadaver class has never been a part of the traveling expo.” The KING 5 Investigators confirmed the Oddities and Curiosities Expo refunded ticket purchases following the canceled show and for unfilled orders for live stream tickets. Death Science was a vendor at the Portland Expo, where tickets to the cadaver class were sold. In addition, The Oddities and Curiosities Expo Facebook page promoted the cadaver class in conjunction with the Expos on October 16 in Portland and October 30 in Seattle.