How To Avoid Medical Donation Fraud

Apr 7, 2010 | 31 comments

Jeff Edwards and cremation retort

Funeral director Jeff Edwards and a cremation retort

Whole body donation for medical research is a low-cost or no-cost option for body disposition. However, 2010 events here in Albuquerque show how one fraudulent provider can make what is meant to be a blessing into a curse.

I’ve written about how to arrange body donation in a previous post. Two online providers mentioned, and, make a point of featuring the logo of Better Business Bureau (BBB) and stating that they are members in good standing (although one reader sent in a comment that BBB ratings are worthless).

Nonetheless, the gruesome actions of Bio Care, Inc., which sent human heads and torsos to a medical incinerator in Kansas City, prompts me to provide these tips to avoid fraud.

Make arrangements before death is imminent.

While none of us know the eventual date of our demise, our bodies don’t live forever. If you plan to donate your body to science, you need to plan ahead and work out arrangements with either a medical school or a reputable organization. Consent forms to be a donor and to authorize cremation need to be filled out, and this is best done without pressure to do something NOW or under duress of grief.

One of the Albuquerque victims died of cardiac arrest, and with her unexpected death, there were no funds available for her cremation. While the woman was an organ donor, her partner’s decision to use Bio Care was strictly an economic one. In these tough economic times, it’s hard for some to have enough money for living, let alone dying. This is why life insurance exists – to help the family financially when someone dies. Unfortunately, many people won’t consider or can’t afford life insurance, and they turn to body donation to ease the high cost of dying.

Work with an established medical school.

One of the Albuquerque victims of the Bio Care scandal was Charlie Hines. A founder of the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta, he died a couple of weeks before the 2009 event. He had arranged to donate his body to the University of New Mexico Medical School. Had his son stuck with the original arrangements, there would have been no problem.

But son Chuck wanted his father’s ashes to do a memorial service at the Fiesta, which would have been a lovely tribute for his father. When Chuck found out UNM could use the remains for research purposes for up to a year, he retrieved the body and turned it over to Bio Care so organs could be donated and he could get the cremated remains by early October. This last-minute switch resulted in tragic consequences: one of the skulls discovered in Kansas City was of his father, and he doesn’t know whose ashes he has.

Be cautious of other providers outside of established medical schools.

I like to think the best of others, but this Bio Care situation makes me wonder about other medical donation companies. Make sure they have approval by reputable associations, such as the American Association of Tissue Banks ( Ask to speak to clients who have used the company’s services.

But be aware that these providers, while approved, are profiting from the use of bodies donated in exchange for a free cremation. They may  sell parts of bodies and do other things with the donated body that you don’t anticipate. 2017 UPDATE: Learn more about body donation and these organizations reported in this Reuters investigative story, The Body Trade: Cashing in on the donated dead.

Here is a list of AATB-approved services (subject to changes):

Anatomy Gifts Registry: Based in Hanover, MD

Medcure: Based in Portland, OR (although we have several negative experiences that have been posted in the comments section of this post)

Medical Education and Research Institute – MERI: Based in Memphis, TN

Research for Life: Based in Phoenix, AZ

Science Care: Based in Phoenix, AZ

Southwest Institute for Bio-Advancement (SWIBA): Based in Tucson, AZ

United Tissue Network: Based in Phoenix, AZ

Talk to your family about your wishes.

Let your spouse and dependents know what arrangements you’ve made. Have a conversation and listen to their concerns. Just as talking about sex won’t make you pregnant, talking about funerals – or body donation – won’t make you dead. Your family will benefit from the conversation.

A Good Goodbye