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A recent photo of David Saunders and his wife, Elsie Saunders.

After a decorated Louisiana World War II veteran died from COVID-19 in August, his widow tried to carry out his wishes by donating his body to advance medical science, a cause she linked to his lifelong penchant for patriotism and service.

She was horrified to learn that her late husband was actually dissected before a paying audience last month in a Marriott hotel ballroom in Portland, Oregon. A touring group billed as the "Oddities and Curiosities Expo" charged up to $500 per ticket for the dissection, which was organized by another group called Death Science.

David Saunders, 98, died Aug. 24 after battling coronavirus in a Zachary hospital. He lived in Baker with his wife, Elsie Saunders, after leaving the New Orleans area following Hurricane Katrina. She told The Advocate on Wednesday that she tried to give his body to LSU, but the university refused the donation because he was COVID positive.

The potential dangers of dissecting someone publicly during a pandemic did nothing to stop a cohort of private companies from organizing an event where the cadaver was dismantled in a roomful of ticket holders. Seattle television station KING-TV first reported about the Oct. 17 dissection, at which VIP customers sat inches from the autopsy table while an anatomist spent hours carving into the corpse and removing various organs.

Elsie Saunders said she learned about the public dissection when a KING-TV reporter called her Tuesday. She said she's been receiving calls from media and family constantly since the report aired.

"As far as I'm concerned, it's horrible, unethical, and I just don't have the words to describe it," she said. "I have all this paperwork that says his body would be used for science — nothing about this commercialization of his death."

Tickets for the spectacle cost up to $500 per person, according to KING-TV, and the presentation lasted from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. with a break for lunch. Organizers said attendees would get to observe a forensic autopsy and anatomical dissection of a full human cadaver.

"From the external body exam to the removal of vital organs including the brain, we will find new perspectives on how the human body can tell a story," an online event description says. "There will be several opportunities for attendees to get an up close and personal look at the cadaver."

David Saunders had long planned to donate his body for science, his wife said. When LSU declined the donation, she was connected with a private company called Med Ed Labs based in Las Vegas. She was under the impression the company had similar objectives to a research institution like LSU.

The public dissection was linked to the Oddities and Curiosities Expo, which travels across the country and purports to attract "lovers of the strange, unusual and bizarre" with items including taxidermy, preserved specimens, horror-inspired artwork and creepy clothing. 

However, when contacted for comment on Wednesday, company officials said they handled only the ticketing for the dissection and were not involved in organizing the event. They passed the buck to another company called Death Science.

"Death Science is the host and worked with a lab," Oddities and Curiosities officials said in an email. "This was absolutely NOT an entertainment style demonstration; it was an educational event."

Death Science founder Jeremy Ciliberto said in an emailed statement Wednesday that Med Ed — which supplied the cadaver and the anatomist teaching the class — was fully aware the body would be used for an event whose attendees were "not exclusively medical students." He told KING-TV he often paid upward of $10,000 for a cadaver. 

In this case, he said the body had been donated for "research, medical and educational purposes." A factsheet from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says experts believe the risk of getting COVID from a dead body is low.

On its website, Death Science advertises "hyper-realistic death science courses to educate in a unique, fun & captivating way." It also sells anatomical models, death-themed artwork and branded merchandise with slogans like "Support your local cadaver lab."

In responding to recent media attention, Ciliberto pointed a finger at Med Ed, saying that company would have to answer questions about the body itself.

Med Ed manager Obteen Nassiri said the body was tested for COVID before being taken into Med Ed custody and the results came back negative, likely because the virus had died by then. He said the negative test means there was no risk to anyone present for the dissection.

Nassiri said he had no idea people would buy tickets for the event. He said Med Ed never worked with Death Science before this, and the company promised everything would be professional.

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He said he spoke with Elsie Saunders on Wednesday morning and offered his sincere apologies.

"We respect our donors and their families, and appreciate their generous gift," Nassiri said. "I told Ms. Saunders: I'm sorry, I'm on her side."

Greg Clark, owner of south Louisiana-based Church Funeral Services, said he had never heard of a ticketed public dissection and was totally disgusted. The funeral home helped prepare the body for transport to Med Ed, but Clark said he stopped working with the company after this experience.

"We're extremely sad for his widow because this is not what her intentions were," he said.

David Saunders, the son of a New Orleans tugboat captain, was born in December 1922. He spent his early childhood on Magazine Street during the Great Depression, he said in a taped interview with the National WWII Museum in New Orleans. 

He was dove hunting with a group of friends when the attack on Pearl Harbor unfolded, Saunders recalled. He later joined the Merchant Marine and boarded a ship in New Orleans, which traveled down the Mississippi River and into the Gulf, through the Panama Canal and across the Pacific Ocean to Australia.

He contracted dysentery during a stop in Egypt, spent several weeks in the hospital and then boarded another ship. But the illness persisted and ultimately Saunders was advised not to return to military service.

He nonetheless did, joining the Army soon thereafter in 1944. He served in the Pacific, worked as a railway electrician and later helped transport Japanese prisoners of war, then saw his first combat in the Philippines. He received minor injuries but watched some of his colleagues get killed.

Saunders said he was "scared, but I did my duty to the best of my ability. … "I thank God every day that I'm still here at 96 years old," he said in the taped interview, remembering some close calls.

The war ended not long after that, and he was sent home. He later deployed again during the Korean War.

He said he was proud to have served his country and wants more young people today to remember the legacy of his generation.

His widow said she hopes people will honor his life after hearing the story of his death.

The two were married for 10 years and had known each other more than six decades. They moved to Baker from Chalmette after Hurricane Katrina, Elsie Saunders said.

She said he was worried about getting the COVID vaccine because of his age, so the couple mostly stayed home and wore masks in public. But the virus found him anyway during the summer delta surge.

"He was a good husband to his first wife and then to me, a good man, a good Christian," Elsie Saunders said, explaining how his religion helped him get through two wars "and come out with a sweet attitude."

"He was very patriotic," she said. "He figured his body donation was an act of patriotism, too, because it would be used to help somebody else maybe."

Editor's Note: This story was updated to note that Oddities and Curiosities Expo officials say they handled only the ticketing, and not the organization, of the dissection.


Email Lea Skene at lskene@theadvocate.com.

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