Families upset UB won't let them see bodies and ashes of donated loved ones
When Heather Petri’s grandfather passed away on Feb. 7, she wanted to say goodbye.
But UB would not let her see him.
UB had received Richard Petri’s body as a donation a day earlier. But the director, Ray Dannenhoffer, who runs the anatomical gift program, told her she could not see him.
“My grandfather’s my world, he raised me,” Petri said. “For me to be able to say my last respects and goodbyes meant a lot. I can’t get that opportunity back.”
Petri, a UB ’16 alum who lives in North Buffalo, is glad her grandfather donated his body to UB and hopes medical students learn from it. But she’s upset at the way UB handled her family’s case and that UB did not let her see her beloved grandfather.
At least two other families whose loved ones donated bodies to UB are also concerned about how the university handles the bodies and the ensuing cremated remains. For instance, Angelena McGuire-Christ never knew she had the right to get her mother’s ashes once UB students had finished with the body and it had been cremated. Christopher James Hanna’s grandfather, Richard Miller, died last year and he wants to know if his grandfather’s body has been used yet, but UB won’t say.
“I’m not the point of contact, but if he is not cremated, I would love to have his body back,” Hanna said. “He already has a plot and stones. I can come up with the money for burial. I just want to stop the cremation process.”
UB receives close to 700 donated bodies every year, Dannenhoffer said, and staff members try to be sensitive to families’ wishes. The bodies get stored at the Biomedical Education Building until they are used by students. Once the students are finished, the bodies usually get cremated, Dannenhoffer said.
Generally, a body gets used within 18 months of delivery, he said. Sometimes the turnaround is quick – in the first month – and sometimes bodies sit for a year or more.
Dannenhoffer said family members sometimes call asking to see bodies and the program does its best to accommodate them on a case-by-case basis. In Petri’s case, he said, it was impossible for her to see her grandfather.
“We were in a position where it wasn’t reasonable for someone not professional to be seeing the body,” Dannenhoffer said. “[It was] not for cold-hearted reasons, but because no reasonable person would let the family view that body.”
Dannenhoffer would not explain why the body could not be viewed or how – a day after its arrival – it was unviewable.
Petri said she learned about her grandfather’s death after speaking with a neighbor. He died in Lake View, a community in the Buffalo Southtowns. She said she called UB at 9 p.m. – the day his remains went to the school – but she was not able to reach Dannenhoffer until the next morning. At that point, she said Dannenhoffer told her she could not see him.
Dannenhoffer confirmed he spoke to a family member on Feb. 8, but he wouldn’t confirm it was Petri. Dannenhoffer, when he got the call, followed protocol and called the lab, where a funeral director told him the body could not be viewed.
The program, he said, follows the Uniform Anatomical Gift Act, which governs who can make and accept anatomical donations. Families and friends are responsible for memorial arrangements, a death notice, Social Security notification, insurance claims and/or veteran’s administration, according to the program’s website.
The website, however, does not detail its process of contacting a donor’s family or friends about their condition. Loved ones are invited to a memorial if donors choose to inter their ashes at North Campus’ Skinnersville cemetery.
Dannenhoffer would not comment on the status of donors like Petri, citing donors’ confidentiality.
McGuire-Christ, a Blasdell resident, has a different complaint. She’s upset that UB did not tell her what happened to her mother’s remains once she was cremated. McGuire-Christ last saw her mother, Debby McGuire, when she died of cancer in hospice care in January 2006. UB took the body from hospice and McGuire-Christ never heard anything about her ashes or remains.
She thought this was normal. But then she saw Petri’s story about her grandfather online.
“When UB took her, I thought that was the end of it and I wouldn’t get her remains. When I heard of Heather [Petri’s] story, I lost it,” McGuire-Christ said.
“I didn’t even know I had the option. I got invited to the program’s memorial ceremony and received a photo frame of [my mother]. Why wasn’t I contacted about her remains?”
McGuire-Christ said UB never contacted her about her mother’s ashes, although she was the registered contact person.
Program donors can request that family members, including points of contact, don’t receive remains, according to Dannenhoffer.
In contrast to UB, SUNY Stony Brook scatters all ashes at sea unless the donor’s family requests otherwise. SUNY Upstate Medical University gives relatives two years to contact the donor program if they want ashes returned. Stony Brook contacts families after cremation and before the sea scattering, according to program coordinator Linda Benson.
Dannenhoffer said at UB, the program follows the donor’s direction of what happens to their remains, but in some cases, when it is possible, families can arrange to change a donor’s wishes.
“If the family itself told us, ‘No,’ and said, ‘The donor wanted to do this, but we would rather do something else,’ we’ll do whatever they tell us,” Dannenhoffer said. “They have the right to tell us that. That’s their business, not ours. We do whatever they as a group agree to.”
Families may request a means of disposal other than cremation, but this requires agreement from the family and authorization from a judge to enforce, Dannenhoffer said.
Dannenhoffer said he and his team work to treat the remains with respect. Donated bodies are considered university property, but he said UB sees them as more.
“We think of it as that individual and we treat them as our relatives,” Dannenhoffer said. “It’s essentially our relative and we do what we would want done for our relative.”
Benjamin Blanchet is the senior features editor and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.