The widow of a 98-year-old World War II veteran was “horrified” to learn his body was dissected in front of a live audience at a $500-a-ticket expo.
David Saunders, from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, died from complications relating to Covid-19 in August, and his family donated his body for medical science in accordance with his wishes.
Mr Saunders’ remains were given to for-profit Las Vegas-based firm Med Ed Labs, who sold them to “macabre artist” and Death Science founder Jeremy Ciliberto, who regularly shares videos of crime scenes and faked corpses to his 1.1m followers on TikTok.
Mr Ciliberto organised a live autopsy for paying customers both in-person and online as part of an Oddities and Curiosities Expo.
During the event held the Portland, Oregon Marriott on 17 October, Mr Saunders’ body was placed under a white sheet on a gurney in the centre of hotel ballroom.
Retired professor of anatomy Colin Henderson then used a surgical knife to slice into his head, limbs and chest cavity, and removed his organs and brain. Audience members were invited to prod his body during the three-hour procedure.
Mr Saunders’ widow Elsie only discovered her late husband’s body had been dissected after Seattle news network King5 sent an undercover journalist into the event and spotted his name tag on the cadaver.
She told King5 she was horrified about the live autopsy, which was akin to being “treated like a piece of meat in front of a paying audience”.
Speaking with the King5, the Baton Rouge-based funeral director who prepared Mr Saunders body, Mike Clark, said no one from the funeral home or family was notified of the man’s fate.
“It makes me really feel saddened that this gentleman was not given the dignity and the respect that he deserved and what he thought and what his family thought would happen to his body,” Mr Clark told the network.
In a statement to the The Independent, Mr Ciliberto claimed that Med Ed Labs were aware that Mr Saunders’ remains would be used for a live autopsy.
He said his company Death Science made it clear they would be selling tickets and that the “bodybroker” had provided an anatomist for the event.
He said Death Science paid more than $10,000 for the body. Med Ed Labs had handled the transfer of the body from the family, and he didn’t have access to that paperwork, he said.
“We understand that this event has caused undue stress for the family and we apologise for that,” he said.
Mr Ciliberto regularly posts videos of “educational simulations” with fake corpses and staged crime scenes which have attracted millions of views on social media.
In an interview with The Independent, Med Ed Labs administrator Obteen Nassiri denied they were aware that the body would be dissected at a public event.
“We had no idea that they would use it at an oddities expo for a paying audience.”
Mr Nassiri said he had spoken to Mr Saunders’ widow on Wednesday morning and she was “very upset”.
“We apologised. We’re very sorry for what’s come of this. We’re fully going to return the remains to her as soon as possible. At our expense.”
A Washington public health official raised concerns that people attending the event could have been at risk of catching Covid-19.
However Mr Ciliberto said a serology test confirmed that Mr Saunders’ body was not infectious.
After King5’s initial investigation went to air on 28 October, another planned live autopsy in Seattle was cancelled.
A spokesperson for the Oddities and Curiosities Expo said: “This was absolutely NOT an entertainment style demonstration, it was an educational event geared towards students, professionals and those interested in a career in this field.”
According to the National World War II Museum’s National Archive, Mr Saunders joined the Merchant Marines after the attack on Pearl Harbour in 1941.
He later enlisted in the US Army in 1944 and was posted to the Pacific theatre where he was wounded while fighting the Japanese in the Philippines.
He also saw action in the Korean War, and after his military service ended he ran a Baton Rouge-based electrical firm.
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