When veteran broadcaster Alistair Cooke died in 2004 few suspected that he was yet to uncover his greatest news story, postmortem. What happened to his body as it lay in a funeral home would reveal a story of modern day grave robbery that was stranger than fiction. As macabre as it might sound, dead body parts is big business and has opened up a grisly black market that gives a whole new meaning to "better off dead than alive."
Each year, millions of people's lives are improved by the use of tissue from the dead. Bodies are used to supply spare parts, and for surgeons to practice on.
Michael MastromarinoThe dark side to this medical advancement allowed for greed to consume people like Michael Mastromarino, a dentist turned body snatcher who Alistair Cookemade millions from stolen corpses, including the body of the Masterpiece Theater host Cooke, after he passed away at the age of 95.
The scheme involved Mastromarino arranging the harvesting of human tissue from funeral homes, forging donor consent forms and then selling the material for use in medical research and transplants.
In Feb 2006, Dr Mastromarino was arrested and sentenced to 18-54 years when he was found guilty of stealing from the dead. Some victims whose parts were harvested had hepatitis, HIV and cancer. Receivers of diseased body parts were at risk of contacting disease and as a result thousands of patients who received diseased body parts had their health compromised.
In 2008, the BBC conducted a report that priced out various body parts. Two years ago, heart valves were worth as much as $7000 in the U.S, and since we each have four heart valves, these parts could sell for $2800 or more in different parts of the world.
A forearm and hand are fairly easy to prepare, so they are only worth $383 each.
Pricing could vary based on whether the deceased treated his or her body like a temple or a trailer and how many body snatchers will fight for the right to carve up the profits. However, as noted in the Mastromarino case if you've sunk to the level of grave robbing, you may not be too particular if the corpse you're stealing from led a healthy life.
For those intrigued by this topic, CNBC is airing "How Much Is Your Dead Body Worth?" on Tuesday, March 23rd at 10 PM ET and will repeat at 1 AM, followed by two other air dates on March 26 (at 10 PM) and March 28 (at 10 PM).