I return to read the news, and think I will not comment on it at all. You all read the papers, but there is a most bizarre article by Alistair Cooke's daughter that you may have not seen about her father's body, and Jimmy Carter and others have united in a wonderful comment on human rights, so, I give you my pluckings of today's news.
Black Shrouds and Black Markets
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By SUSAN COOKE KITTREDGE
Published: March 5, 2006
East Montpelier, Vt. — Ten days before Christmas, I received a call from a detective with the Brooklyn district attorney's office. He wondered if I had heard anything about the office's investigation into the illegal sale of more than 1,000 bodies by several funeral homes in the area. I told him I had not. He went on to explain that the bodies were stolen and parts of them sold to several different processing plants. It sounded macabre, and I don't really remember much more after he said, "We have evidence that your father's body was one of the ones taken."
I was literally dumbstruck, too stunned to think or speak. The detective asked if by any chance this was the Alistair Cooke. I told him yes; he whistled through his teeth. Apparently investigators found that those who sold his tissue had falsified my father's age and cause of death, listing him as 85 rather than 95 and as having died of a heart attack rather than lung cancer that had metastasized to his bones. CNN had reported on the case the night before, but at that time no one knew of my father's involvement. Civil suits were being filed; class-action suits would probably follow.
I hung up and stared, slack-jawed, into space. Searching for some equilibrium in the next few days, I researched the story and felt the hair on the back of my neck rise. I called the detective and asked if there might be some mistake. He said that was not possible; they had receipts for my father's bones from tissue-processing plants in New Jersey and Florida.
The Brooklyn district attorney's office set about the long, gruesome task of verifying the contents of coffins. Unfortunately, they found a lot of plumber's pipe where there should have been bone. Last month, four men, including an embalmer and the owner of a human tissue bank, were arrested. Other arrests are expected.
That's the public part of the story. Those of us privately affected continue to be haunted by our unwilling parts in this ghoulish narrative.
Thanks to advances in technology, the tissue-processing industry has expanded to make use not only of donated organs but also of muscle, bone, tendons and skin for research and transplant. But now prosecutors say that some people who desperately needed help were given diseased tissue and body parts. Already there are patients who say they have contracted syphilis and hepatitis from these transplants. Imagine for just a second, if you can bear it, being told by your doctor — as thousands of patients have been — that in retrospect they aren't exactly sure where the tissue they put in you came from. How could you run away from yourself fast enough?
What has been surprising to me is how disturbed I have been as a relative of someone whose body was stolen. Unlike the recipients of diseased tissue, I have not been made physically ill. Walking around with a turned stomach is a far cry from learning you may have hepatitis or H.I.V. But the malaise I've contracted is one of sorrow and apprehension.
I've thought a lot about bodies over the last couple of months. I am not unfamiliar with dead bodies; I have watched autopsies, prayed over victims of fatal accidents, been in embalming rooms, funeral homes and emergency rooms and stood at many a graveside. I have counseled parishioners and families not to see our bodies as the core essence of who we are. Most of the time when I see a dead person, my reaction is: "Oh, not here anymore. Gone." I believe with all my heart that this is true. And though gone where, exactly, is less clear, gone to whom is pretty certain in my mind: gone to God.
The body we are left with is empty in the way that counts most. But we have loved that body in its particulars — perhaps the long fingers, the arch of the neck, the quirky smile, the strong arms, the face undone by tears.
Though we may say what we'd like done with our bodies when we die, the final decision rests with our next of kin. My father stated in his will that he wanted to be cremated and most of him, I guess, was. He was 95 years old, frail and ravaged by illness. After he died, my goal was to leave that picture behind. As anyone who has lost someone to an extended illness or a brutal accident knows, you try very hard to let go of the image of that person's final suffering and instead to remember the person as he or she really was. Usually, we manage this.
For almost three months, this goal has eluded me. Since I learned what happened to my father's remains, it has all been about the body, that still, empty vessel. It's hard to get beyond the body when the body is the story.
Cultures and religions throughout history have all had strict rules about dealing with the dead. Whether because bodies are believed to be ritually impure, bearers of disease, or sacred entities, their treatment is carefully prescribed.
In our society, figuratively and literally, we place death in a box, and we are able to grieve and to heal so long as its lid is nailed firmly shut. But sometimes the lid comes unhinged: when suspicion surrounds a death, when someone is missing in action, when a body is lost in a tsunami, or when, as in my father's case, someone steals a body and chops it up and sells it. Then we are plunged into an alien dimension.
It wasn't always this way. A hundred years ago, people died at home. The women of the family would then wash Grandmother's body and dress her up in her Sunday go-to-meeting clothes as the funeral baked meats were laid out in the parlor. Where I live in Vermont, many old farmhouses have a room off the kitchen that used to be called the "borning room." In it, people were born and died close to the warm hearth.
But since that time, we have handed death over to doctors, hospitals, nursing homes and funeral homes. And perhaps that's not surprising, since none of us wants to dwell too much with the unpleasantness associated with death.
Maybe that's why the tissue transplant industry is so poorly regulated. The criminals in my father's case were apparently able to pull off multiple frauds. They forged his death certificate, medical history and family consent forms. A simple phone call to his next of kin would have revealed that these documents were false, but at no point in the chain did anyone audit them. Although it is illegal to buy and sell tissue, those involved may have managed this by exploiting a loophole that allows harvesters to charge an unspecified processing fee. And although the Food and Drug Administration forbids the transplant of tissue contaminated with malignant cancer, the tissue bank in question may not have run the mandatory tests.
Being an organ or tissue donor is still a safe, generous and commendable act. Unfortunately, cases like these cast suspicion on all such endeavors. More stringent oversight would help restore confidence in organ and tissue donation programs. And public awareness could help bring such changes about, if citizens will bring pressure to bear on their Congressional leaders and other elected officials.
No doubt the recipients of illegally procured tissue continue to live in fear, while we, the families told that our loved ones' remains were stolen, remain haunted by the body's gruesome fate. Just last week I discovered the unsettling detail that it was my father's legs that were cut off and sold. To know his bones were sold was one thing, but to see him standing truncated before me is another entirely.
But perhaps this is a wake-up call — at least for those still able to sleep. We must not be so intent on distancing death from our hearths that we fail to do everything in our power to make sure this sort of crime never happens again.
Susan Cooke Kittredge is the minister of the Old Meeting House.