PORTLAND, Ore. — Multnomah County commissioners voted unanimously Thursday to ban the public display of human remains for profit. The proposed ordinance comes after a controversial event where people paid hundreds of dollars to watch a live autopsy of a human cadaver in a hotel conference room.
“Today, we are saying enough,” said Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury.
The autopsy, organized by a media company called Death Science, was part of the Oddities & Curiosities Expo held in Portland in October.
According to a Facebook post advertising the Death Science class, attendees could watch a full forensic autopsy or anatomical dissection of a real human cadaver. Tickets started at $250 each, with VIP seats going for $500.
Multnomah County’s chief medicolegal death investigator, Kimberly DiLeo tried to stop the live autopsy before it happened, but police and prosecutors told DiLeo, as the law was written, there was nothing they could do.
Video taken inside the conference room at the Portland Marriott Downtown Waterfront by KING-TV showed more than two dozen people watching the dissection.
After seeing news coverage about the controversial event in Portland, a funeral director in Louisiana recognized the name of the man whose body was on display. The corpse had a wristband that read "David Saunders."
“I’m deeply hurt and frustrated that I was unable to save my husband from the violation of his remains,” said Saunders widow, Elsie. The Louisiana woman testified before the Multnomah County commission on Thursday by phone.
David Saunders was a veteran of World War II and the Korean War. After the 98-year-old died of COVID in August, his family honored Saunders’ wishes by donating his body to science. Little did they expect his corpse would end up on display in a hotel conference room, the centerpiece of a live autopsy and dissection before a paying audience.
“I was duped by selfish and immoral people for the sake of their personal monetary gain,” said Elsie Saunders. “Adding to my grief for his loss is the vision in my mind of his naked and defenseless body being dismembered like a butcher preparing an animal carcass for sale.”
The controversial Portland event raised ethical questions and negatively impacted legitimate body donation programs, explained Tamara Ostervoss, body donation director at Oregon Health & Science University (OHSU).
“It’s incredibly harmful. Our program for example, we support over 2,000 learners throughout the state of Oregon and these sort of disreputable programs impacts their education, and it really impacts health care outcomes for future generations,” said Ostervoss.
The proposed county ordinance targets the commercialization of displaying dead bodies to the public, although it does provide some exceptions including accredited funeral homes, museums like OMSI and universities like OHSU.
Anyone caught breaking the county law could face fines of $1,000 per violation, per day. Additionally, violators would have to hand over any profits to the county and pay for all attorney fees and costs.
Formal approval of the proposed county law will require a second vote.
County counsel suggested it is a simple ordinance designed for specific and rare instances — adding they hope it will have a deterrent effect, so the community will never see or encounter a pay-per-view autopsy again.