Undertaker Gets Cremated


A Newark funeral director has lost his license after being caught in a scheme to harvest the body parts of his clients and sell them to organ tissue banks.

Stephen K. Finley, who owns Berardinelli Forest Hill Memorial Home, Cremation at a Low Cost, and Funeraria Santa Cruz, all located in Newark, has agreed to have his license revoked and pay $40,000 in civil penalties after it was found that, between 2001 and 2005, he was harvesting body tissue from the dead.

The tissue was then used in surgical procedures, according to a press release put out today by the New Jersey district attorney’s office. The mastermind of this scheme, former maxillofacial surgeon Michael Mastromarino, pleaded guilty to body stealing in Brooklyn in 2006 and is currently serving a prison term of 18 to 54 years.

Randall Patterson detailed the scheme in a 2006 New York article. According to Patterson, Mastromarino recruited undertakers by paying $1,000 per corpse. The undertakers allowed surgeons to enter their business, usually within 24 hours of death, and use a special room to saw off body parts (television personality Alistair Cooke was harvested under the scheme, though most body stealing happens to poor people). The reason for the body stealing, of course, is that it pays.
Wrote Patterson: “The dead are in demand like never before. . . Hearts and livers and kidneys receive the most attention because they save lives, but the same technology that has allowed for their transfer has also enabled the far more common transplant of tissue. Nearly every part of a corpse can now be put to use. For spinal fusions and the repair of fractures, bone is in greatest demand, but veins may be used for bypass in heart surgery. The membrane around the heart can reupholster the brain after neurosurgery, and the membrane around the muscles of the thigh can sling up sagging bladders to control incontinence. Tendons and ligaments can return mobility. Corneas can restore clear vision. Cartilage can help in facial remodeling. Dead skin can replace burned skin. And collagen can fill wrinkles, plump lips, revive youthful appearance.”

Technically, it’s illegal to sell dead bodies, but organs don’t count as bodies, and, in recent years, tissue banks have gone directly to funeral homes where families decide, usually within hour of death, whether they consent to donating their relatives’ bodies to science. (In this scheme, consent wasn’t always involved).

This summer, the Voice also chronicled the traffic, not in parts, but in bodies themselves. The lucrative trade is one of the more unusual immigrant businesses in New York. It works because thousands of immigrants prefer to be buried in their home countries than on our soil.

For more on this morbid topic, read Body Brokers: Inside America’s Underground Trade in Human Remains, by journalist Annie Cheney.

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on January 6, 2009

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