Excerpt from Body Brokers by Annie Cheney, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Body Brokers

Inside America's Underground Trade in Human Remains

by Annie Cheney

Body Brokers by Annie Cheney
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  • First Published:
    Mar 2006, 240 pages
    Paperback:
    Mar 2007, 240 pages

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Fourteen months passed. Then, one afternoon, the telephone rang in Joyce's house.

When she answered it, a woman asked, "Are you the mother of Jim Farrelly?"

"Yes," Joyce said. "What is this regarding?"

"I'm a victim's advocate."

Joyce wondered if one of her sons was playing a joke. "But my son is dead," she said.

"Yes, I know," the woman said.

Could it be identity theft? Joyce pressed the phone to her ear and took a deep breath. "I don't understand," she said. "What is this about?"

The female caller paused. "I'm calling to tell you that your son has been the victim of a crime."

"A crime?" Joyce almost laughed.

""Ma'am," the woman's voice was somber. "We have identified your son's body parts at a crematorium. His body was dismembered."

Dismembered? But Jim's ashes . . . He'd been buried. He was fine. Joyce said, "I'm going to have to call you back."

Later, Joyce would recall that final night in the hospital. In retrospect, it seemed odd to have left Jim alone. And yet, what could she have done? No one had invited her to the morgue. Did the hospital even have one? Joyce had never thought to ask. The nurses, who had been so solicitous when Jim was alive, said nothing about his corpse. Joyce had signed some papers at the funeral home. But she never saw Jim's body. Now, Joyce wondered: Where had they taken him? Why hadn't she been there for her son?

Corpses lead a perilous existence. Whisked from the arms of family and friends, they embark on a journey under the care of strangers. In most cases, those to whom we entrust our dead take care to ensure that they're laid to rest safely. Most morgue workers, funeral directors, and crematorium operators keep careful track of each body. Indeed, many care for them as they would the dead bodies of their own relatives. Still, body brokers have been known to haunt this dark landscape, hunting for body parts, which they can later sell.

At each stage of the journey, there is ample opportunity for theft. At the hospital, a nurse or an attendant shuttles the corpse first to the morgue, where it's stored in a steel refrigerator. If a family requests it, an autopsy may be performed. As it happens, an autopsy is an ideal situation for body brokers inclined to theft. Pathologists routinely take samples of specimens relevant to their investigation–a slice of kidney, for instance–which get preserved in paraffin blocks and transferred onto slides. An honest pathologist may remove a whole brain and keep it fixed in preservative for weeks. Otherwise, the brain matter will not yield its secrets. This is perfectly legal as long as the doctor has permission from the deceased's family.

But consent forms vary in their specificity, and pathologists often work with unlicensed assistants known as dieners, a word derived from the German for servant. Dieners do the work that no one else wants to do: They dissect bodies, cutting through bone and muscle and removing whole organs so that the pathologists can weigh and examine them. They are responsible for cleaning up the morgue and assisting pathologists. A diener may work with a pathologist, while at the same time harvesting body parts for tissue banks. Stealing body parts is easy for a diener, and the money is good. Dieners often become brokers.

Excerpted from Body Brokers by Annie Cheney Copyright © 2006 by Annie Cheney. Excerpted by permission of Broadway, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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