In America, a lot of jobs require some kind of credential. Want to be a lawyer? You’ll need a license. Dentist? License. Electrician, accountant, taxi driver? License. But if you want to chop up human bodies and sell them to researchers and pharmaceutical companies?
GUYETT: I could take a person apart within 15 minutes, you know, bag it and put it in the freezer and it’s ready to go. I didn’t have to have a funeral directors license. I didn’t have to have any type of medical degree, or licensing to take possession of a human body. Many times I would be told, “Are you a doctor?” I’d go, “No.” I don’t say there’s zero regulation, but yeah, but there is really no regulation.
For the Freakonomics Radio Network, this is The Economics of Everyday Things. I’m Zachary Crockett. Today: Cadavers, part two.
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In the first part of this series, we talked about the troubling history of cadavers in the United States — how medical school anatomy labs used to obtain bodies from murderers and grave robbers. Those practices ended when the laws were changed to allow people like you and me to donate our bodies to science. These days, around 20,000 Americans do that every year. Some of those bodies are donated directly to medical schools. Others go to for-profit companies that sell human body parts with very few legal restrictions. Not much is known about how these so-called body brokers do business. So, today we’re going to hear from a man who spent more than a decade in the trade.
GUYETT: My name is Philip Guyett. I got into the body parts business back in like 1993. And yeah, and it just kind of, I don’t know if you could say spiraled or went up from there.
In the early 1990s, Guyett was working as a land surveyor. When he injured his back, he needed to find a job that was less physically demanding. An acquaintance told him about a medical school in Southern California that needed help sourcing cadavers for its anatomy classes.
GUYETT: You know, I’ve gone deer hunting, so I’m used to seeing things dead. But that was my first experience with dead bodies — human bodies.
The university where Guyett went to work had 250 students in anatomy classes. In a typical year, they needed around 80 cadavers for study. They didn’t have many donors, so Guyett had to network with larger schools and scrounge around for any excess cadavers they had in storage.
GUYETT: I started visiting all the other medical schools in the Southern California area. You know, UCLA, USC, UC San Diego, UC Irvine. A lot of schools would only take cases if the place of death was 50 miles or less from their institution. So I would start getting referrals and then started growing our program.
For academic institutions, cadavers are strictly a not-for-profit undertaking. The donor doesn’t get paid. And the school will typically cover the fees for transportation, embalming, cremation, and paperwork. That usually adds up to a few thousand dollars — a small fraction of a med student’s tuition. But while Guyett was sourcing cadavers for that Southern California university, he noticed that some of the directors of the donor programs he worked with had side hustles — and that’s where the real money was.
GUYETT: We got some cadavers from USC. Their coordinator rolled up in a three piece suit in a Lexus — and, you know, this guy had the same job I had! And that’s kind of where I started learning about these body brokers, you know, people going to different universities, offering them cash for different body parts.
Guyett learned that there is a huge demand for cadavers outside of anatomy classrooms. Researchers and medical device companies are willing to pay top dollar for certain body parts. Split up into pieces, a cadaver can collectively fetch $5,000 to $10,000. A severed head, for instance, can be sold for $500. A foot, $350. A spine, $300. Torsos, elbow and knee joints, brains — there’s a need for just about anything.
GUYETT: On the limbs — extremities, head, spine, hips, stuff like that — you should be able to make about $5,000. You’re going to add about another $2- to $3,000 in organ research tissue, so segments of the brain — parietal lobe, frontal lobe, occipital lobe — pieces of heart, lung. And then on top of that, there’s just normal control tissue they need for their research.
Now, as a reminder, live organ and tissue donation is heavily regulated by federal agencies. Before a heart or a lung or a cornea is transplanted into a living patient’s body, it goes through an extensive health screening process. But, as Guyett learned, if a body part is being used strictly for research, none of those regulations apply.
GUYETT: There’s very little screening, if any. And no one ever questions the people actually purchasing the bodies.
In the early 2000s, Guyett left his university job and started a body donation firm in Las Vegas. To find donors, he ran ads in the obituary sections of local newspapers, and struck up relationships with workers in end-of-life facilities.
GUYETT: I’d say 90 percent of the donors are 65 years of age or older. And so, you work with hospices. You work with the head nurse at many hospitals because that’s where people die. You give gifts, you do raffles, you know, you do nice things. And then they’re going to talk to the family.
Some body brokers will pay funeral homes referral fees for convincing families to donate their loved ones’ bodies. They’ll also sweeten the deal by offering donors free cremation. Any remains not sold to researchers are incinerated at no cost and returned to family members. This incentive is especially attractive to low-income Americans.
GUYETT: The average cremation right now in the U.S. is about $2,000. We’ve always been looked at as, like, preying on the poor, but it’s another option. You know, it’s gotten too expensive to die. Sometimes a family will say, “Oh God, this came at a terrible time, no one has money, my husband just lost the job,” stuff like that. And then that kind of gives an opening — so, that’s kind of how those conversations start
Consent forms can be pretty vague. They typically specify that a body will be used for research — but usually don’t spell out, in clear terms, that a body might be chopped up and sold to multiple entities.
GUYETT: I think a lot of families are fooled by some of the propaganda on these websites because they show research as, you know, someone in a lab coat looking at a slide, where in reality they are going to cut the head off, cut the spine out, or stuff like that.
Guyett — who, again, had no formal training of any kind — was the one doing all that chopping up. And he found that researchers did not seem to care much about precision.
GUYETT: They’re not paying for expertise. They’re not paying for a fine cut. You know, we use Home Depot tools, stuff like that, because nothing really had to be sterile. Everything gets double-bagged. It gets given an ID number and then placed into a chest freezer and it’s frozen fresh. And then orders are filled once you acquire a certain number — shoulders, knees, hips, foot and ankle, or whole extremities.
So, who exactly was buying all of these body parts? That’s coming up.
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After Philip Guyett obtained each cadaver, cut it into pieces with tools from Home Depot, double-bagged the parts, and put them in his freezer, who did he sell them to? The biggest buyers are medical equipment manufacturers, like 3M, Johnson & Johnson, and Stryker. When those companies develop a new tool, they’ll set up workshops in hotel ballrooms at medical conventions, where surgeons can test them out on real human body parts.
GUYETT: Maybe there’s a surgical instrument company that is hosting a workshop in Las Vegas, and they need 250 heads for their rhinoplasty lecture. I’m getting paid $500 per head, plus another $5,000 per day, setting everything up.
These conventions are lucrative. And the biggest body donation companies — like Science Care, who we talked to in Part 1 — even put on their own workshops.
GUYETT: They’ve opened up their own auditoriums and their own teaching facilities so they can keep everything in-house instead of going to Caesar’s Palace.
But conventions aren’t the only market for human bodies.
GUYETT: Cadaver dog training courses. Yeah. They would want organ and bone tissue, just different types of tissue in different stages of decomposition. There were plenty of requests for different organs — you know, testicles, penises, stuff like that. I never recovered any penises because what ended up having to go wrong with another group out of Arizona is when they raided his place, they found a bucket full of penises and, you know, the question was, “Why do you have them?” My question when I was asked for an interview on the case, I said, “Well, who requested them?”
Regardless of where Guyett found a willing buyer, he would ship body parts just like any other product, using carriers like FedEx.
GUYETT: I would go to places like Costco or Sam’s Club and I’d buy the big 100 quart coolers because, you know, they’re hard shelled. You can place those things in frozen and they’re not going to defrost in an overnight shipment, or you can pack them with dry ice.
The money didn’t stop with the bodies themselves. Guyett noticed that, during cremation, there would often be metals left behind. The funeral homes would typically throw them away. But he saw a business opportunity.
GUYETT: I was making $350 to $500,000 a year recycling hip and knee implants, because it’s all cobalt and titanium. I was making about $25,000 to $50,000 a month on dental gold. The whole human body, it just ends up being a frickin’ commodity. Is it wrong? Is it right? I don’t know, but — there’s a lot of ridiculous money in businesses like this. People don’t know about it until something happens.
By “something,” Guyett means a controversy. And there has been no shortage of them in the world of body brokering. In June of this year, the director of Harvard’s body donation program was indicted for selling parts of cadavers donated to the university. One client allegedly purchased two dissected faces for $600 and used them to make dolls with human skin. In Phoenix, a body donation firm was accused of lying to family members about how donors’ bodies would be used. A civil lawsuit resulted in a $58 million dollar settlement. And in Colorado, two funeral home directors were charged with selling tissue from people who’d paid for cremation services.
GUYETT: You have a funeral home that told the family that they’re cremating the body, but they’re dismembering it and selling it to different institutions.
Guyett says that, in some cases, the donor’s cremated remains are not as complete as the family expects.
GUYETT: Sometimes, these bodies would be taken apart so much where there’s only like a rib cage left. The family only gets maybe a pound, or a pound and a half worth, of ashes back. And that’s where people can start doing stupid things like putting in cat litter or putting in something else that isn’t the body. So there’s plenty of opportunities for people to be lazy, unethical, stupid.
Guyett took some of those opportunities himself. In 2006, after he’d moved his operation to North Carolina, he came home to a media frenzy at his door.
GUYETT: I saw, like, seven news vans parked around my house. And that was when I knew that, yeah, things were not going to go my way.
Guyett had been selling tissue for live transplants alongside body parts for research — and he had altered medical information to pass off diseased samples as healthy ones. Prosecutors later said that more than 120 patients received this tissue, exposing them to potentially deadly risks. Guyett was found guilty of wire fraud and was sentenced to 8 years in federal prison.
GUYETT: Prison sucks. You lose your family. You lose a lot of stuff. You lose your livelihood. But no one ever looks at my case and says, “You know what? Maybe I shouldn’t get into this business.” Everyone else just thinks they can do it better.
CROCKETT: What about the people you affected?
GUYETT: It is completely my fault for what I did. None of us did our due diligence.
Congress is currently considering a bill that would require body brokers to register with the federal government and follow rules about labeling, packaging, and disposing of human remains. It might prevent cadaver dealers from playing fast and loose with donations, but it wouldn’t eliminate the industry. Researchers and educators need human bodies — and that means there’s money to be made supplying them.
Today, Guyett is a free man. He’s living in California and back to working his old job as a land surveyor.
GUYETT: In prison I learned about options trading from all the white collar guys. So, um, yeah. Without a dead body, I do fine.
But, at least for now, nothing is preventing him from buying a few tools from Home Depot, soliciting some body donors, and picking up where he left off.
GUYETT: If I wanted to get back in the business, I surely could.
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For The Economics of Everyday Things, I’m Zachary Crockett. This episode was produced by Sarah Lilley, and mixed by Jeremy Johnston. We had help from Lyric Bowditch and Daniel Moritz-Rabson.
GUYETT: Kind of a bummer, isn’t it?
- Philip Guyett, land surveyor and former body broker.
- “Inside the Largely Unregulated Market for Bodies Donated to Science: ‘It’s Harder to Sell Hot Dogs on a Cart,'” by Justin Sherman (CBS News, 2023).
- “Bilirakis, Fletcher, Murphy and Tillis Introduce Bipartisan, Bicameral Bill to Stop Brokering of Body Parts, Preserve Integrity of Organ Donation Process,” press release by the office of Congressman Gus Bilirakis (2023).
- “Sunset Mesa Funeral Home Operators Sentenced to Federal Prison For Illegal Body Part Scheme,” press release by the U.S. Attorney’s Office, District of Colorado (2023).
- “Cashing in on the Donated Dead: The Body Trade,” series by Reuters (2017).
- Heads, Shoulders, Knees, and Bone$: A Personal Account of a ‘Body Broker’s’ Thirteen Year Journey Through the Legal and Lucrative Body Parts Business, by Philip Guyett (2011).
- “Cadavers – Part 1,” by The Economics of Everyday Things (2023).