PORTLAND, Ore. – The widow of a decorated World War II veteran thought she was donating his body to science. Instead, she was horrified to learn that her husband’s body was dissected in front of a paying audience at an Oregon hotel last month.
When David Saunders, 98, of Baker, Louisiana, died on Aug. 24 from COVID-19, his wife tried to carry out his wishes and donate his body to further medical science research, The Advocate of Baton Rouge reported.
Instead, Elsie Saunders, 92, learned that 70 people gathered at the Portland Marriott Downtown Waterfront hotel on Oct. 17 to watch her husband’s autopsy, The Oregonian reported. Some of the spectators paid up to $500 to watch the dissection at an “Oddities and Curiosities Expo,” according to the newspaper.
The expo is an annual traveling event marketed toward “lovers of the strange, unusual and bizarre,” according to The Oregonian.
Colin Henderson, a former University of Montana anatomy professor, conducted the autopsy, according to Medpage Today. Henderson could not be reached for comment, the website reported.
“As far as I’m concerned, it’s horrible, unethical, and I just don’t have the words to describe it,” Elsie Saunders told The Advocate. “I have all this paperwork that says his body would be used for science — nothing about this commercialization of his death.”
Kimberly DiLeo, Multnomah County’s chief medicolegal death investigator, said she contacted the Portland Police Bureau and Oregon Medical Board before the event to warn them about the autopsy, according to The Oregonian.
“It’s devastating to families,” DiLeo told the newspaper. “On top of grieving the death of their loved ones, they have to deal with the fact that their loved one was desecrated, and that’s the last memory that they have.”
DiLeo said the public display could be considered abuse of a body, a Class B felony in Oregon. However, Lt. Nathan Sheppard, a Portland police spokesperson, said detectives consulted with the Oregon Department of Justice, the Oregon State Police and Multnomah County District Attorney’s Office and determined no crimes were committed during the autopsy, according to The Oregonian.
Sheppard did concede that civil laws may have been broken, including those that forbid certain postmortem examinations of bodies.
Only private citizens can press civil charges, The Oregonian reported.
“I didn’t know he was going to be … put on display like a performing bear or something,” Elsie Saunders told NBC News. “I only consented to body donations for scientific purposes. That’s the way my husband wanted it. To say the least, I’m upset.”
David Rodney Saunders was the son of a New Orleans tugboat captain, according to The Advocate. He was born in New Orleans on Dec. 5, 1922, according to online military records. He was dove hunting with a group of friends when Pearl Harbor was attacked, Saunders recalled in a taped interview with the National WWII Museum in New Orleans.
He later joined the Merchant Marines and eventually served in the Pacific theater, including Australia, according to The Advocate. He worked as a railway electrician and later helped transport Japanese prisoners of war before seeing combat action in the Philippines, the newspaper reported.
He also served during the Korean War, according to The Advocate.
David Saunders had planned to donate his body for science for many years, his wife told the newspaper. She told the newspaper on Wednesday that she tried to donate her husband’s remains to LSU, but the university declined because he was COVID-19 positive.
Elsie Saunders was then connected to Med Ed Labs, a private company based in Las Vegas, The Advocate reported. Elsie Saunders told the newspaper she thought the company had similar objectives to a research institution.
Death Science founder Jeremy Ciliberto said in a statement Wednesday that he bought Saunders’ body from Med Ed Labs, which told him the company had done a serology test to rule out any infectious diseases.
But he said Med Ed Labs did not tell him Saunders died of COVID-19, according to The Oregonian.
Greg Clark, the owner of Louisiana-based Church Funeral Services, said he had never heard of a ticketed public dissection, adding that he was “totally disgusted” with the idea, The Advocate reported. The funeral home helped prepare the body for transport to Med Ed Labs, but Clark said he stopped working with the company after learning about the public autopsy, the newspaper reported.
“We are extremely saddened for the loss of the widow and what she is going through,” Clark told The Oregonian on Tuesday.
Ciliberto apologized for “undue stress” the event caused Saunders’ family and said Death Science would no longer work with Med Ed Labs, the newspaper reported.
“Death Science is currently conducting an internal review to create stronger vetting processes when partnering with future businesses and organizations,” Ciliberto said.
DiLeo said Multnomah County officials will work to enact legislation that would prevent similar events from occurring. The Oregonian reported.
“It’s very difficult for families,” DiLeo told the newspaper. “It discourages people from donating their bodies to science, and it may also give them a lack of trust in the death investigation profession.”
Elsie Saunders said she hoped people will honor her husband’s life after hearing the story of his death.
“He was very patriotic,” she told The Advocate. “He figured his body donation was an act of patriotism, too, because it would be used to help somebody else maybe.”
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