Excerpt: 'Body Brokers' by Annie Cheney

Forget respect for the dead. Journalist Annie Cheney exposes the underground market -- and the very lucrative business -- of procuring, buying, and selling human cadavers and body parts in her new book, "Body Brokers: Inside America's Underground Trade in Human Remains." Cheney's tales will haunt you, as well as make you vow to protect your loved ones even after they die.

Below is an excerpt for from her book.

Chapter One: Wilderness

Joyce Zamazanuk knew that her son was dying. She knew it when the nurses quietly wheeled Jim to a private room on the seventh floor of the hospital in San Diego. His new room had a bed, a metal chair, and an oxygen tube, but little else. Outside, few visitors wandered the halls. A hush hung over the nursing station. Joyce thought, This must be where they bring the sick patients to die.

Six days in the hospital had done little to help Jim. AIDS had ravaged his body. The tumor that engulfed his lungs appeared larger in each new CAT scan. Always slender, Jim Farrelly, 45, was now reedlike beneath the cotton sheets and blankets. His thick brown hair had thinned to a soft, downy fur. He had trouble talking. Death by asphyxiation was certain.

Joyce wondered what awaited her beloved son: Would he feel pain in the moment of his passing? How much longer before he left her?

Joyce had been just 17 years old when Jim, her third son, was born; the two had always been close. Even as a baby, Jim was gentle in his manners and feminine in his tastes. He wanted to do whatever his mother did. Unlike his macho brothers, Jim would learn to cook and to sew. Later, when his sister was born, he styled her hair and embroidered flowers on her clothing. At school, the other children called him all the usual names: sissy and mama's boy.

But Jim was a scrapper, tougher, his mother always said, than any of his tough brothers. When they lost Jim's father, it was Jim who stepped in and took care of Joyce. Jim planned his father's funeral. He bought the Christmas presents. He was a comfort to his mother. When he grew up and settled in San Diego, Joyce often came to stay. She and Jim shared their sorrows and secrets.

AIDS was one secret Jim had tried to keep. When he was diagnosed with HIV in 1994, he lied to his mother and said, "The doctor just found a polyp. Nothing for you to worry about." Joyce was relieved. But within a year, the virus had progressed to full-blown AIDS.

Jim tried to prepare his family for his death. He knew it was coming -- he'd seen many of his friends die -- and so he made sure everything was ready. With the little money that he had, he bought a cemetery plot in Arizona. He drew up a will and arranged to be cremated through a funeral home in San Diego. With his debts paid and his last wishes clear, Jim assured his mother there was nothing more to worry about.

The end came quickly. Jim had only been on the seventh floor for six or seven hours when he began making a guttural, gasping sound. By now, everyone had arrived: Jim's sister, Joy; his best friend, Billy, and countless others. Startled, they rushed to his bed.

"What is it, Jim?" his mother asked.

"Can I help you? You're not crying. Please don't cry."

Jim shook his head. He was laughing. "It's okay, Mom," he whispered. "I am less and less. There is more and more." Then he fell into a coma. Soon after, he was dead.

Everything went as planned. In the hospital room, Joyce said good-bye to her son. After she went home, the nurses came and took Jim's body down the long hall, into the freight elevator, and downstairs to the morgue. Several weeks later, someone from the mortuary called Joyce to say that Jim's ashes were ready. "OK, send them along," Joyce replied. But when the urn arrived, she didn't open it. She clutched it and placed it on her shelf, where she gazed at it for weeks. Finally, she sent it on to Tucson, where it was buried beside the urn of Jim's father.

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.

Numerous diener thefts have been discovered over the years, from Maine to Los Angeles. Nearly all of these cases were uncovered purely by chance. Often the families of the dead noticed something odd on an autopsy report. Only later did they learn that parts of their family member's body had disappeared owing to an intricate deception.

If an autopsy isn't ordered, someone at the hospital calls the funeral home of the family's choice. A driver comes to pick the body up and take it to the funeral home. There, the body is refrigerated until the time comes for what's known in the funeral trade as "final disposition." If the body is to be cremated, it may be sent to another funeral home equipped with a crematorium or to a crematorium at a nearby cemetery. Here, once again, a stranger, who often has little training or supervision, assumes control of the body. If the crematorium operator is so inclined or is familiar with the market, he may be tempted to remove a body part before sliding the cadaver into an oven. Once a body is cremated, there's no way to know if anything is missing.

If the body is to be embalmed, the procedure takes place at a funeral home. But there too, a corpse may not be safe. The funeral home may have an agreement with a tissue bank. Each body may produce a tidy kickback, a thousand dollars, perhaps. Or, more disturbing, the funeral director may own his own tissue bank, earning thousands of dollars selling the parts of each corpse entrusted to his care. He might not bother to ask permission.

Relatives rarely have the opportunity -- or the inclination -- to accompany their deceased loved ones into the realm of hospital morgues and funeral homes. They sit by their bedsides while they are alive, clutching at any sign of life. But once death comes, they are quick to release them into a world, which, for many, is a kind of wilderness. And there, as in the wild, vultures are drawn to the dead.