In a gruesome story of betrayal, 244 corpses were hacked apart and their organs and tissue sold for transplantation
DAN OPREA’S MOTHER, Rose, was always fiercely self-reliant. Born in 1923, she grew up at 5th and Oxford. After graduating from Hallahan Catholic Girls’ High School, she married Daniel Oprea Sr., with whom she had a son. When the two divorced after seven years, Rose took it upon herself to enroll in Drexel University, where she studied electrical engineering. She became an engineer with RCA. With her only child, Rose Oprea carved out a happy life. She was not afraid of aloneness.
She and her son remained close — geographically and otherwise — as he grew older, despite the fact that they were opposites of sorts; Rose was bookish and artistic, while Dan, who took a job with the Navy, enjoyed working with his hands. (They shared a common interest in movies, something Rose instilled in her son from a young age.) Dan married and had two sons, to whom Rose was especially devoted. When Dan and his wife Mary Rose tragically lost their 26-year-old son Stephen in 2001, the mother-son bond grew stronger.
In her later years, Rose developed her share of health problems; she’d had a kidney removed years earlier, she suffered from angina and diverticulitis and a low iron count, and there was some slippage mentally. Dan and Mary Rose worried about her — her continued driving was of particular concern — and tried repeatedly to convince her to let them move in with her in the three-bedroom rancher in Huntingdon Valley that Rose had always said Dan would someday inherit. But Rose, who at 82 kept herself busy painting American Indian-syle works and running errands in her Chrysler Concorde, would have none of it. Dan and Mary Rose lived a few miles away, and Dan visited his mother every Saturday, mowing the lawn, raking leaves, changing light bulbs, whatever she needed done. The two spoke on the phone, without fail, every day.
One day in late December 2004, Dan tried to reach his mother. She didn’t answer. He figured she was out rummaging the after-Christmas sales, and wasn’t immediately worried. When it turned six o’clock and they still hadn’t heard from her, Dan and Mary Rose drove to her house. They found her car parked in the driveway. Dan used his key to unlock the front door. Inside, they called out, flipping lights on as they searched. In her bedroom, they discovered Rose lying contorted on the floor. Her dachshund Sparky stood vigil beside her.
At the hospital, doctors determined that Rose had suffered a stroke. She was completely paralyzed on one side, and she was disoriented. She could no longer speak, or write. As the days wore on and her condition stabilized, she regained little of what she’d lost. After two weeks, she was transferred to a nursing home.
The Opreas visited Rose at Luther Woods Convalescent Center as frequently as possible. Though she struggled to communicate, it was clear she was uncomfortable — she tried often to wiggle out of bed — and wished to be home. She once managed to express to her son her worry that she was causing trouble. He told her she was no trouble at all. Late on the night of April 18, 2005, the Opreas rushed to the nursing home after receiving a call that Rose was deteriorating rapidly. They stood at her bedside, holding her hands, trying their best to comfort her as she lay dying.
Obsession over what happens after death — not just to the soul but also to the physical self — has always been part of the human condition; for as far back as we can discern, human beings have taken steps to care for their dead. But what was once exclusively the province of families — literally, next of kin — has morphed into a $15 billion annual business in America. Society, with the considerable influence of the funeral industry, has come to consider the way a corpse is treated as a direct, final and lasting expression of the quantity and quality of love felt.
The Opreas had talked at length about what they wanted done with their bodies after their deaths. All disliked the idea of embalming and burial, and when the Opreas’ son died, they had his body cremated. Dan and his mother had made a pact years earlier, inspired by one of their favorite movies, Beau Geste, from 1939; it features a so-called Viking funeral, in which the body is put on a ship, lit on fire, and sent out to sea. Mother and son agreed that when she died, he’d have her cremated, place her ashes on a model ship, set it on fire, and launch it from the Atlantic City beach.
From the nursing home, Mary Rose phoned Charlie Mancini of Mancini Funeral Home, on Somerset Street in South Philadelphia, whom she’d known for years and who’d handled her son’s arrangements. After she hung up, she and Dan said one last goodbye, and left.
Mancini arrived some time later to take possession of Rose Oprea’s body. There was little for him to do but deliver it to the crematorium. There are just four crematoria in the City of Philadelphia, and Mancini always used one called Liberty, which was owned by Louis Garzone and his brother Gerald and their partner, James McCafferty Jr. Arriving at Liberty’s nondescript building in Kensington, Mancini wheeled the body of Rose Oprea inside, where it was to have been cremated following a 24-hour waiting period, in keeping with Pennsylvania law.
Two years later, when a Philadelphia detective showed up on their doorstep, the Opreas would learn what actually happened next: Once Mancini was gone, in the cloak of darkness, a shadowy figure — a man — walked across Somerset Street. He entered the crematorium, placed the body bag containing Rose Oprea’s remains on a gurney, and wheeled it back across the street, to a funeral home that Lou Garzone owned, where the cutters were waiting.
The cutters drove down from New York usually in the morning. They arrived in broad daylight. They went to work on a rusted table in a cramped, fetid, windowless, blood-encrusted embalming room one of them would later liken to the back of a butcher shop.
They slashed off the arms and legs at their joints, and then stripped the bones from them. Bones taken in complete pieces are most valuable, so femurs and other long bones were removed whole. The cutters used power tools to remove spines. They cut out Achilles and other tendons. Occasionally they took hearts. They skinned the bodies, including the faces. It was a blood-soaked, rushed operation. A proper harvesting can take four hours; the cutters could do it in 30 minutes. Appropriately removing a thin layer of skin from the body can itself take more than 30 minutes; the cutters could do it in 60 seconds. They used the same blades, wore the same gloves, cross-contaminated bodies and specimens.
They paid no mind to established protocol for harvesting postmortem tissue, which defines a suitable donor as someone under 65, without infection, serious disease or cancer, preferably felled by accident, heart attack or stroke; harvesting is to be completed within 15 hours of death. At Lou Garzone’s funeral home, bodies routinely sat for days without refrigeration, often in the alleyway. The body of Philadelphia resident Diane Thomas, who died of metastatic cervical cancer, sat out for 113 hours. Joseph Pace, a 54-year-old widower from Kensington, suffered from sepsis, cancer, HIV and hepatitis C. James Herlihy, a former Naval Yard worker, also had hepatitis C and cancer. The cutters sliced apart 81-year-old Joseph Gibson, who died at the University of Pennsylvania of stomach cancer; his tissue was recovered 92 hours after he died. The eviscerated remains were rolled across the street to the crematorium, with packed towels to prevent a trail of blood. A crematorium employee said the bodies arrived disfigured, often missing limbs. Some were just torsos. The body bags that held them were full of blood. This was how the body of Rose Oprea, too, was cared for.
On forms forwarded to tissue processing companies, the cutters invented virtually everything, creating new identities for the deceased, new death certificates, subtracting decades from their ages (one 89-year-old was said to be 60), inventing next of kin, fabricating doctors, sometimes using, as a grand jury would put it, “special touches” — writing, on one form, that “Lois Glory” traveled to Mexico in 1981. As a result, authorities have been able to identify just 48 of the 244 corpses McCafferty and the Garzones handed over to the cutters; of those 48, nearly half died of cancer, sepsis, HIV or hepatitis. To circumvent compulsory blood tests, the cutters supplied the processing companies with blood from other corpses known to be clean.
About the same time that Rose Oprea was hospitalized for her stroke, the 62nd precinct of the New York City police department, in Brooklyn, was notified of a possible case of fraud. A couple — Deborah Johnson and her husband, Robert Nelms — had recently purchased the Daniel George & Son Funeral Home. A man had come to the home wishing to bury his aunt, who had prepaid for her funeral; Johnson could not find the appropriate documentation, and noticed larger-scale accounting irregularities. The case was assigned to Detective Patricia O’Brien.
O’Brien checked the files at the funeral home, which seemed to corroborate Johnson’s concern. But there was something else, Johnson told O’Brien. The detective accompanied her upstairs, to a hidden room. It was fitted out like an operating room, with hospital-style overhead lights, a hydraulic lift that rose through the ceiling of the embalming room on the floor below, a toilet with tubes into which blood and other bodily fluids were drained, scalpels, knives, saws. …
Back at the precinct, O’Brien began Googling addresses from forms Johnson had also shown her: All were for tissue-transplant companies, scattered around the country.
Through records from the George funeral home — many of them obviously fabricated — the investigation spread, from Brooklyn to the city’s other boroughs. O’Brien was joined by members of the NYPD’s prestigious major case squad, who fanned out, interviewing relatives of the deceased. The number of corpses that had been butchered at the funeral home increased first by the dozens and quickly by the hundreds. The police learned that in every case but one, permission hadn’t been granted — hadn’t, in fact, even been sought — for the harvesting of the dead’s skin, bones and tendons. The case seemed to grow more outrageous by the day. Detectives soon discovered that among those eviscerated was 95-year-old Masterpiece Theatre host Alistair Cooke, who’d died of lung cancer that had spread to his bones; his daughter, who had sought a cheap, simple cremation at her father’s request, would later speak of “lives torn asunder” by “these desecrations.” The exhumation of an 82-year-old Queens woman who died of brain cancer revealed that most of the bones below her waist had been cut out and replaced with plastic piping. When word of the investigation finally leaked out, a year after O’Brien first arrived at George & Son, the number of unwitting donors had eclipsed 1,000. The city was, to put it mildly, scandalized. BODY-SNATCHERS! shrieked the New York Daily News, which broke the story. Not to be outdone, GHOUL AND THE GANG! shouted the Post.
The investigation in New York was building steam, but 90 miles away as the crow flies — or in this case, a sparrow, which was flying, flitting, above the streets of Kensington, searching for a tree or some other place to perch — in Philadelphia, no one at Lou Garzone’s funeral home was aware of that. The sparrow arced down on Somerset Street, over an alleyway beside Garzone’s, where a mound of … something lay on a gurney, covered, oddly, by a large swatch of artificial turf. Later, a cutter would tell the grand jury he distinctly remembered the sparrow perched atop a human body that had been hacked to pieces and covered in fake turf — perhaps Rose Oprea’s, or one of the 243 others dismembered there — then left in the alleyway. The sparrow stood on two toothpick legs. Its head bobbed up and down, like a puppet’s. With its beak, it inspected the gaps between the artificial green blades of turf. Then it stared straight, fluttered its wings once, and flushed.
FINALLY, IN OCTOBER 2007, the Philadelphia district attorney’s office announced its own indictments: of Louis Garzone; his brother Gerald; their partner James McCafferty Jr.; the mastermind behind the entire enterprise, physician Michael Mastromarino; and Lee Cruceta, Mastromarino’s right-hand man. At the same time, the D.A. released a highly unusual 104-page report from the grand jury that had spent a year investigating the case. “What we found,” the grand jury wrote, “was appalling.”
It began with Mastromarino, handsome, cleft-chinned, a married father of two, in his early 40s, from tony Fort Lee, New Jersey. He’d worked in Manhattan and New Jersey as an oral surgeon until 2000, when he was forced to surrender his license following a string of Demerol-induced antics at his office: He’d fallen asleep while suturing a patient; he collapsed coming out of a bathroom with his scrub pants down around his ankles; after he left a patient under general anesthesia on the operating table, a nurse found him on the floor of a bathroom with a needle in his arm. Finally, according to a lawsuit he later settled, he sliced through a nerve in a patient’s jaw, leaving part of her face permanently paralyzed.
Down but not out, Mastromarino regrouped in 2002 by opening Biomedical Tissues Services, or BTS, a cadaver body-parts recovery company; he had knowledge of the business through his experience as a surgeon, since he sometimes transplanted human parts into his patients. While it’s illegal in the U.S. to profit from organ and tissue donation, Mastromarino would exploit a loophole that allows companies to charge for “handling” and “processing” tissue and bone. Mastromarino met Lee Cruceta, a nurse then in his early 30s who was adept with power tools and enjoyed medicine’s similarities to carpentry; he also had experience working for tissue banks. Cruceta was put in charge of field operations, a position that had him overseeing a Dickensian cast of cutters. With very little practical governmental oversight, and with the extraordinary medical need for tissue, Mastromarino operated his body-snatching enterprise with breathtaking ease.
Though it’s the major organs — heart, kidneys, liver — that we think of in cases of transplantation, they represent, in fact, the minority of what’s harvested. Fifty times more often, bones, skin, tendons and other tissues are transplanted in operating rooms, in more than a million procedures annually. Pieces of bone can be used to repair back and spine injuries; bone can be ground into a putty to fill voids from fractures. Cadaver skin not only replaces that of burn victims; it can repair stomach linings eaten away by acid, patch holes in hearts, shore up faulty bladders as slings.
In 90 percent or more of cases, the harvesting of such materials occurs in the confines of a hospital, as with major organs. But Mastromarino knew of a lesser-tapped, though legal, source: the funeral home. He reached out to ones in lower-income urban areas, penetrating Philadelphia through an employee of the city’s medical examiner’s office. Over an 18-month period ending in September 2005, the Garzones and McCafferty would hand over to Mastromarino and his cutters those 244 bodies — and perhaps more — entrusted to them for cremation, from which thousands of individual body parts were harvested. (In New York, the bodies taken were destined for both cremation and burial, forcing cutters to operate conservatively if a viewing was to be held; Philadelphia’s bodies were taken exclusively from the cremation lot, so cutters were free, according to Cruceta, to go “whole hog.”) Of the more than $3.8 million earned by BTS, Mastromarino and Cruceta from their enterprise, $1 million came from Philadelphia corpses. The Garzones and McCafferty were paid $1,000 a body, or approximately $250,000 total.
The funeral directors apparently felt little obligation to their unsuspecting customers, even failing to make sure that the ashes returned to them were actually those of their loved ones. One family held its memorial the day before the relative was actually cremated. Another conducted a service in the family home at the precise time cutters were at work on the body.
What then, exactly, is their crime? How to categorize it? Prosecutors have labeled it fraud. Theft. Fraud and theft committed upon the families who trusted the funeral directors to render the agreed-upon services. But also, implicitly, theft upon the dead, the very pilfering of their parts. Such thinking, though, not only places the dead, strangely, at the center of the victimization; it also ignores the underlying basis of what funeral directors do, which is, after all, to traffic in death.
We have given them that. Until the Civil War — when sons died far from home and needed to be preserved for transport, and when hundreds of thousands of Americans were exposed for the first time to an embalmed body vis-à-vis Abraham Lincoln’s epic train journey from Washington to Philadelphia to New York to Illinois — there was no such thing as embalming here, or funeral directors. Americans took care of their dead. They stood by them when they died, washed them, built them wooden coffins, laid them out in front parlors (hence “funeral parlor”), and then buried them themselves, paying more than lip service to the axiom of “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.” Now we hand off our loved ones’ bodies before they’ve even appreciably cooled to funeral directors charged with transforming corpses into what’s called, in funerary parlance, “a memory picture,” to drain them of blood, pump them full of dye and formaldehyde, glue their eyes and wire their mouths shut; to jab a metal instrument through their abdomens and pierce their vital organs, vacuuming up their discharge; to paint them with makeup and position them in coffins in mimicry of peaceful sleep. Or, in cases of cremation, to introduce their bodies into ovens heated to 1,600 degrees, and stoke their bones during an hours-long combustion. This is their job.
Yes, the dead may have been victims of a sort, but beyond them, there was what the funeral directors and cutters did to the living, and not just to the families of the dead. For once their work was finished, the cutters packed the flesh and bones into picnic coolers and headed back north with them. BTS then forwarded the bones and tissue to its client processing companies, which cleaned, handled and supposedly sterilized the parts. Next they were repacked and shipped to doctors and hospitals around the world, including Thomas Jefferson University Hospital, where on the morning of May 12, 2005, 65-year-old Betty Pfaff lay unconscious in an operating room as her surgeon tore open a plastic package containing AlloDerm — a white freeze-dried substance, derived from cadaver skin, that dissolves into a wound and stimulates rapid tissue regeneration — which he lowered into the opening stretching across the woman’s abdomen.
Lying in the recovery room, draped in covers and her mind foggy, Betty Pfaff was informed that her surgery — a somewhat complicated one, due to the fact that her abdomen had been opened so many times before — had been a success. Everything went well. You’re going to be fine, she was told. At this moment, these sentences were not only accurate as far as anyone knew, but provided Pfaff with great solace.
Pfaff, a sweet, plump widow who lived alone in a tiny white house across the street from a picturesque cemetery in Jenkintown, had had surgery for abdominal hernias twice before. She’d become susceptible to them as a result of having undergone two cesarean sections within one year. (After her first child, a daughter, died at three months, in 1976, she’d quickly become pregnant with a son, Philip.) Another hernia had cropped up the previous winter; she scheduled the operation for the spring, when the weather would be better. She was unaware before her surgery that she’d be receiving human tissue — she didn’t recall her doctor explicitly telling her, and hadn’t read the consent forms carefully — and remained unaware after, which isn’t unusual, given how routinely it’s used.
She was wheeled back to her room. Her wound, about eight inches long, was to remain open so that accumulating fluids could drain, and doctors came frequently over the next several days to check it, and to change the dressing. She was out of bed and sitting in a chair in one day, and walking down the hallway in three. After a week, she was doing well enough to be discharged. Instead of going home, she decided to recuperate at a nursing home, as she was worried about being alone. She intended to stay there for a month, but was so disgusted with the care she received that she left after six days, despite having developed a fever, which fluctuated seemingly without reason. Her doctor prescribed an oral antibiotic, which she supplemented with Tylenol. Overall, she felt unwell, weak.
Surrounded by the comforts of home — her favorite navy blue recliner, her books and magazines, her favorite stuffed bunny with the long floppy ears and a country dress — Betty hoped she’d begin feeling better. She did not. Visiting nurses handled the wound and monitored her fever, which continued. In early June, she began feeling particularly bad, and her temperature spiked to 100.4º. She called a friend, who drove her back to Jefferson, where she was admitted.
While examining Pfaff, her doctor discovered a tiny piece of gauze deep inside her wound. He performed a debridement — a deep cleaning of the wound. Afterward, he told her, once again, that all had gone well. He ordered a culture of the wound, and started her on a three-day course of high-potency amoxicillin. She remained in the hospital for four more days.
Her son picked her up and returned her to her home, and the visiting nurses began coming again. She felt about the same, and her temperature persisted; she remained on antibiotics, and was instructed to return to the ER if her fever broke 100.5º. On July 1st, her visiting nurse came and took her temperature: It was 104º. “We have to get you to the hospital,” the nurse said, and left a message for Pfaff’s son. Betty called her sister Nancy, who came over to sit with her and wait for Philip.
Betty’s condition worsened. She began staring; she had trouble focusing. She rocked oddly in her chair. Nancy feared her sister was suffering a stroke. Philip arrived, and Nancy went outside to confer with him. They dialed 911.
By the time they reached Abington Hospital, Betty’s fever was burning at 106º. Her heart rate had increased rapidly, along with her respiration. Nurses threaded a catheter into her hand and pumped fluids into her. A doctor ordered several intravenous medications. She appeared to be getting better. At 9 p.m. she told Nancy and Philip to go home, that she would be fine. Then, at midnight, Philip received a call to return to the hospital. His mother had been moved to intensive care. Doctors told him there was just a 20 percent chance she would survive.
Betty Pfaff was septic, meaning her entire body was ravaged by infection. When Philip saw her, a ventilator was breathing for her. She was horrifically swollen. She was hooked to a dialysis machine that was removing and purifying her blood. Philip was told to summon his family. They arrived at the hospital and surrounded Betty. A priest administered last rites.
For nine days her family stood vigil, having been assured she would die. Incredibly, on the 10th day, she opened her eyes.
All around the hospital, she became known as “the new Lazarus.”
It would be, however, a long, difficult recovery. She couldn’t walk, wash, or take care of herself. She spent 26 days at Abington Hospital, then two months in rehabilitation, slowly building back her strength.
Over and over, Betty Pfaff asked her doctors a single question: How could this happen? They replied with the only answer they knew: Infection is always a risk with surgery. But Betty was unsatisfied.
It wasn’t until Valentine’s Day 2006, almost a year after her surgery, that she opened a letter that arrived from the Food and Drug Administration via her doctor. It advised her that she’d received human tissue, stolen from a cadaver, that was now the subject of an unprecedented and, for her, utterly impossible recall.
As of press time, after vehemently professing their innocence for two years, Michael Mastromarino, Lee Cruceta, several New York City funeral directors and several cutters were either in the process of accepting or already had accepted deals to plead guilty to the charges they faced in both New York City and Philadelphia. They are expected to testify against the remaining defendants, including the Garzone brothers and McCafferty, who have pleaded not guilty in Philadelphia court and are scheduled to stand trial later this year. The defense is expected to argue that these defendants did none of the actual harvesting and therefore cannot be held accountable, though the spate of plea agreements by their co-defendants obviously bodes poorly for them. In addition, Mastromarino, having just been sentenced to 18 to 54 years in prison, will likely cooperate in implicating the tissue companies that bought from him. Those companies — which generate multimillion-dollar profits annually and are publicly traded — have claimed they had no way of knowing the documents Mastromarino prepared were fabricated, and no way of knowing the true source of the materials they received.
Then there are the civil lawsuits. Philadelphia attorney Larry Cohan has been named by the U.S. District Court in Newark, New Jersey, as lead counsel in a class-action lawsuit against all of the defendants in the criminal case as well as the tissue companies, representing so far 900 people nationwide, including Betty Pfaff, who received some of the 20,000 pieces of stolen tissue. In addition, along with his partner Melissa Hague, Cohan is representing 15 families of the unwitting donors in their suits in Philadelphia court, including the Oprea family.
The cases are, however, by no means surefire. In the first place, there seems to be little money to be wrung from many of the defendants, including Mastromarino, who’s paid for legal representation in several jurisdictions, and the funeral home operators, whose insurers have maintained that their policies don’t cover subscribers’ criminal conduct. That leaves the tissue companies that distributed Mastromarino’s stolen goods, especially Regeneration Technologies Inc., recently renamed RTI Biologies, the first-stop processing company in Florida through which all of Mastromarino’s body parts flowed.
Cohan and Hague argue that it’s impossible RTI didn’t know what Mastromarino was up to. Parroting the prosecutors’ argument, they say the paperwork — including the death certificates — forwarded to the company were almost transparently fraudulent. The numbers themselves coming out of Mastromarino’s company, they say, should have raised red flags. “Normally, one particular harvesting company might get just a minimal number of donors, say one a month or maybe two or three,” says Hague. “Mastromarino was getting 10 or 30 a month. He was RTI’s primary supplier for human tissue implants, and they never questioned him about it. There’s no way they couldn’t have known.”
Still, RTI — which recently announced record revenues of $94.2 million for 2007 — and the other tissue companies are preparing an aggressive defense, challenging the idea that those who’ve developed serious diseases contracted them from the transplanted materials, given the claimed sophistication of the companies’ sterilization processes.
Bob Rigney, CEO of the American Association of Tissue Banks, puts great stock in RTI’s “BioCleanse” low-temperature chemical sterilization process; RTI claims to have distributed more than 500,000 BioCleansed implants “with zero incidence of infection.” Rigney says furthermore that the risk of spreading infection or disease from transplanted tissue, even in cases when the tissue has not been treated as such, is exceedingly low. “Quite frankly, the safety record in terms of tissue is remarkable,” he says. “In the last 20 years, we’ve seen only one confirmed death.”
Rigney attributes that level of success in large part to the extraordinary safeguards his organization has helped build into the tissue-retrieval system, from the stringent donor criteria that disqualify 90 percent of would-be donors — not only the diseased but in some cases even those with tattoos — to the multi-layered testing of donors’ blood, to careful reviews of the deceased’s medical records, to elaborate interviews with loved ones to ascertain the donor’s lifestyle — the same safeguards, in short, that Mastromarino and his henchmen systematically ignored. And the one death that Rigney mentions is noteworthy. In 2001, a 23-year-old Minnesota man died following knee surgery to repair a torn ACL. An investigation later determined that the cadaver cartilage implanted during his surgery hadn’t been recovered until 19 hours after the donor’s death, during which time a deadly fungus grew in it, forming spores that withstood the sterilization process and blossomed inside the recipient into an overwhelming infection. The investigation specifically cited the 15-hour limit for safe retrieval, the same 15-hour limit authorities believe was exceeded in Philadelphia in almost every case.
Cohan will also have the testimony of these witnesses to offer to a jury: A 41-year-old Ohio man who tested positive for HIV and hepatitis C after receiving BTS bone implants in surgery for degenerative disk disease. A 30-year-old Colorado woman who had to undergo a repeat ACL replacement after her first BTS tendon failed. A 74-year-old widow from Ohio who received BTS bone for a lower-back surgery and developed syphilis.
Though he has the model ship ready, Dan Oprea hasn’t yet fulfilled his promise to his mother to deliver her ashes to the sea in a Viking funeral. “I intend to do this,” he says. “I’ve got the ship, I’ve got everything. I know it sounds ridiculous, but I have this feeling like … I’m throwing her in the trash. And I understand that’s not what’s happening, and I intend to do this eventually, but I’m just not ready yet.”
Oprea says he’s struggled to get past the news of what happened to his mother’s body. His wife says she often catches him staring into space, and knows where his mind is. In many ways, Dan says, he wishes he never found out about it. “It’s just like something out of a horror movie,” he says. “You just can’t understand how anybody could do this.”
And this poses the question, again, of what the greatest crime here may be. Irish journalist Mary Kenny, whose sister Ursula was among the unwitting donors, wrote that she doesn’t resent that her sister’s body was dissected, only that it was done without express permission. “What is a body after death anyway? Nothing but waxwork effigy,” she noted. “Her spirit remains strongly with me, hovering over so many moments in my life, and that is dearer to me than the fate of a mere anatomy.”
Certainly the accused in this case may be guilty of much, of fraud, of larceny, of misleading loved ones, of taking advantage of their vulnerabilities, of falsifying records, of harvesting remains in grotesque, unsanitary settings, and of introducing potentially infectious parts into otherwise healthy bodies. Isn’t that last thing, without doubt, their most egregious offense? Yet it hasn’t resulted in a single criminal charge. Instead, it’s the charge of “abuser of corpses” — defined by the Commonwealth as “a person who treats a corpse in a way that he knows would outrage ordinary family sensibilities” — that has given the government the most traction. That may seem, in the scheme of things, almost quaint. Except that for Dan Oprea and millions of others, it goes to the very heart of how we still look at an uncertain line, between life and death.