Donating your body to medical research is arguably the ultimate act of generosity, and though it's nice to believe that you'll be helping scientists cure cancer or retrofit humans to combat antibiotic-resistant superbugs, the reality is that many bodies donated to science wind up being poked and prodded by medical students. NYU's medical school has for some time made a point of demonstrating respect for those who donate their bodies, holding regular ceremonies at which medical students honor their "first patients and true teachers"—but it turns out that for years, the school was sending cadavers to be buried in mass graves at Hart Island, even when donors specified that they wanted to be cremated.
The New York Times stumbled across these cases during a larger investigation of burials on Hart Island, the 131-acre island east of the Bronx that's been under the jurisdiction of the city since 1868 and run solely by the Department of Correction for the past 70 years. 65,801 people have been buried on the island since 1980, and the Times' investigation found that a number of those people had their bodies donated to be used as cadavers by first-year medical students at NYU. They signed forms that said their bodies would be cremated and their ashes disposed of "in an appropriate and dignified manner," but wound up unceremoniously packed into 150-person coffins alongside former prisoners, stillborn infants, AIDs victims, and those who were unidentifiable at the time of their death.
The Times details several cases in particular, such as that of Marie Muscarnera, who passed away in 2005 at the age of 91 and was buried on Hart Island in 2008:
Ms. Muscarnera, it turns out, grew up in Brooklyn in dire poverty, the oldest of 10 children in an Italian immigrant family that depended on her teenage labor to survive. But by the time she died, in 2005, her fierce drive, dressmaking talent and shrewd investments had earned her a nest egg of more than $1.3 million. She left it all to charity, including $691,700 to N.Y.U.'s medical school. Separately, like Joseph, who was disabled and lived for years under her care until he died at NYU Langone, she gave the medical school her body for use as a cadaver.
The N.Y.U. form she signed stated, "I wish my remains to be cremated and the New York University School of Medicine to be responsible for burying or spreading the cremains in a dignified manner."
Instead, after using her body as a cadaver for three years, the anatomy program paid a funeral home $225 to transport it to a city morgue in the Bronx, to be boxed in pine and ferried to Hart Island, where the city pays inmates 50 cents an hour to do the burying. Cremation costs the school $155 more per body.
Then there was Ruth Proskauer Smith, who helped found the National Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws and passed away at the age of 102 in 2010. Her children were under the impression that NYU would cremate their mother's remains, and upon learning the truth, her son said that his mother would have been outraged, "NOT because she would have cared where she was 'disposed of' but because this hugely wealthy institution used this device to cheat the city by having taxpayers pay for burial."
A spokesperson for NYU Langone Medical Center told the Times that the bodies weren't sent to Hart Island to save money, but couldn't explain the reasoning behind NYU's actions, which apparently persisted until 2013. Lisa Greiner said that the institution wasn't aware it was happening, and that it's not known how many bodies ended up on Hart Island, in part because some records were lost during Hurricane Sandy and in part because the program's former director, who retired in 2013, now has dementia.
In a statement, NYU's senior associate dean for medical education, Mel Rosenfeld, said that "We sincerely regret any actions on our part that did not reflect the wishes of those altruistic donors and their families who willingly donated their remains for medical education...In 2013, we instituted major changes to our disposition practices for donor remains that will ensure that we honor the donors' wishes with regard to their remains."
Hart Island's governance has come into question in recent years: in 2014, City Council Member Elizabeth Crowley introduced legislation that would transfer jurisdiction over the island from DOC to the Parks Department, and at a hearing on the matter this January, many were critical of the way the island is run now: NYCLU attorney Christopher Dunn said that "because we have prisoners on Hart Island, we have to run it like it's a prison facility. Everything about that is wrong and Medieval." The Council hasn't yet scheduled a vote on the legislation, but as of January, we were told that a near majority of council members were in favor of the change.