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My father donated his body to Harvard. What happened after was horrifying.

He donated his body to Harvard Medical School and I’ve been left wondering: How I can keep my memories of him untainted?

Globe Magazine

Were parts of my father’s body sold from the Harvard morgue? The question haunts me.

He donated his body to Harvard Medical School and I’ve been left wondering: How I can keep my memories of him untainted?

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Photograph from from Stephanie Harzewski

The voice on the other end of the line sounded strange. I was in the emergency room at Portsmouth Regional Hospital. It was the evening of March 25, 2017, and my father had just died of heart failure.

My dad, Vincent Harzewski, had endured an epic medical battle: four heart attacks, two types of cancer, an above-the-knee leg amputation, total renal failure. He was legally blind in one eye, close to it in the other, and his chronic gastrointestinal bleeds necessitated many, many infusions. He wanted to donate his body to science when he died, in a gesture of gratitude for the doctors and nurses who had kept him alive for so long.


There in the ER, with the doctor, I dialed Harvard Medical School’s Anatomical Gift Program. I remember the call was quick — I’ve spent more time ordering takeout — and oddly informal. I don’t know what I expected — an “I’m very sorry for your loss,” maybe, or a “thank you.” But I put it out of my mind. My dad had completed the paperwork for his donation months ago, and I didn’t have a backup plan. This was what my father wanted: to contribute to science, perhaps even to future medical breakthroughs.

I was my dad’s primary caretaker for the last 3½ years of his life, and having his body accepted by Harvard felt like seeing him through to the end. I took him as far as I could in the mortal realm, and once I’d made the final arrangements on the phone and left the ER, he entered a different dimension. I felt relieved.

But then years later, in the spring of 2023, I saw the news of an alleged body-part sales network out of the medical school’s morgue, and received a letter from Harvard saying my father’s body may have been involved. While my intuition had registered for a few seconds that something was off during that phone call to Harvard, the idea that my father’s body was being shipped to a post-mortem meat market never, ever, occurred to me.


My memories of that strange call came flooding back. Could the man I had spoken to on the phone have been Cedric Lodge, the morgue manager who allegedly dragged the Anatomical Gift donors, and by extension their loved ones, into an awful, unforeseen afterlife? I’ll likely never know, but that call has stuck with me, nagging at my memories of my dad’s last days.

If you’re not safe when you’re dead, I wondered, what kind of world are you in?

LAST JUNE, Lodge was accused by federal prosecutors of selling the remains of donated cadavers to collectors (he maintains his innocence and is yet to go to trial). Lodge allegedly took home parts of bodies to sell online and by phone, and sometimes allowed prospective buyers to visit the morgue to choose the ones they wanted. Many others have been charged in the nationwide ring, for which court cases are ongoing: Lodge’s wife, who sent body parts through the mail; a self-described “human blood artist”; an Arkansas woman who allegedly stole from the mortuary where she worked; a Peabody dollmaker who owned a store called Kat’s Creepy Creations. The grotesque fate of the body parts is described in court documents: skin turned into leather, dolls holding real human skulls, heads shipped through the US mail.


I would like to believe that the alleged members of this ring rationally understand that purchasing dismembered body parts intended for science is deeply disrespectful to the donor — someone’s family member who gave their literal flesh and blood for a good deed. But I somehow doubt it: Cedric Lodge commuted to work in a vehicle with a “GRIM-R” license plate. One man went by “William Burke” online, a reference to a 19th-century serial killer who sold his victims’ bodies for use in medical training.

These are some of the reasons why I chose, along with other family members of Anatomical Gift donors, to join a class action suit against Harvard. A judge recently ruled that Harvard is immune from prosecution because it acted “in good faith” and is not liable for the alleged misconduct of its former employee, whose conduct school officials have called “an abhorrent betrayal.” We plan to appeal.

The writer, at right, with her father and sister at his 70th birthday party in 2009.from Stephanie Harzewski

In most cases, it seems impossible to know whose bodies, precisely, were trafficked and how. As family members of donors, our loved ones were potential victims, and this is part of what is so agonizing to us: We do not know and may never know if our departed was spared. And because of that, it is psychologically inevitable that we have to ponder the possible scenario that they were mutilated and sold piecemeal.

It will be a long time before I can look at a picture of my father — unquestionably my number one man for my first 43 years — and not wonder, What became of his head, with the silky gray hair he never bothered to get cut? I ask myself, Was his Herculean right hand sold? The hand that built a dollhouse complete with furniture, a playhouse with a Dutch door, and also mended socks and dresses for me and my sister?


What became of his heart? I used to curl up against the warmth of my father’s chest while he taught me to sound out words. In this grim market, what constitutes a hot commodity? Ghoulishness? Rarity? Aberration? Would my father’s tattoos be attractive to collectors?

In reading a Department of Justice indictment containing online messages of transactions, a description of a large piece of chest skin that had been tanned to leather stood out. Was this his chest? Would the doves on each breast, and the burn marks from defibrillation by two medical teams that tried to save his life, be coveted by these collectors? I will never know — and I can never unknow the possibility.

I recall watching news related to the scandal, specifically, the FBI’s findings during a raid in the home of James Nott, the Kentucky man who went by the serial killer name and exchanged online messages with one of Lodge’s buyers. Nott was not arrested for involvement in this ring, but instead on charges of possession of a firearm by a convicted felon. Nevertheless, court records show authorities found some 40 human skulls, spinal columns, femurs, and hip bones. He decorated his home with skulls, with one on his bed.


I looked through the images of the skulls. I can rule out those with teeth, I thought. My father had dentures.

But quickly, I saw the pointlessness of this attempt at certitude. It felt like the best way I could determine if he was safe, but this was the last thing my father would have wanted me to spend my time doing.

What I need to work on is not letting images of bodily corruption further metastasize my memories. Instead, I try to think of my father alive, intact. It’s a cliché to say in remembering my father, it’s the little things that help me recall our bond. But it’s true.

Vincent Harzewski in Bermuda in 1968.from Stephanie Harzewski

What brings me joy now are memories that, at the time, I found fairly mundane: when I was on break from grad school and he walked into my childhood bedroom on a weekday afternoon with a platter of pigs in a blanket; his ritual of video-taping Dancing with the Stars, then editing out the commercials for me; him offering to pick me up from the nail salon after a pedicure so I didn’t have to walk home in flip-flops.

Once, when I was maybe 10, I let my pet hamster Rudolph out of his cage to explore my bedroom. He slipped through a hole under a baseboard, and from there into the walls of the old house that had once been my grandmother’s. After three days of searching, my dad still wouldn’t give up — one of his favorite sayings was “nothing beats a failure but a try.”

As a final shot, he decided to cut out a 5-inch-square hole in the wall of the kitchen. And there was my hamster, magically exactly there, as if waiting for us. Rudolph was visibly dehydrated and had a broken back leg, but my dad had saved him.

MY FATHER DIED on March 25, 2017. To me, he became undead on June 15, 2023, the day I read that letter from Harvard. The reality of what happened to him — what could have happened to him — is never far away, a potent force waiting to rewrite my memories.

Like grief, triggers can crop up unexpectedly, and in the most quotidian contexts. This happened when I attended a steampunk-themed fair in Kennebunk, Maine, where one of the vendors was selling imitation skulls. It happened at a root touch-up at a beauty school, where the students use mannequin “practice heads.” It happened walking into town one morning, when I paused at the Halloween decorations of a neighbor: a faux gravestone with the epitaph “Rest in Pieces.”

I still have trouble looking at pictures of my father. The ones of him as a boy, black and white photos, seem unaffected, but those toward the end of his life feel poisoned. Nobody should be afraid or made anxious from looking at a photo of a parent that for years was a testament to their love. The unholy acts of the alleged smuggling ring altered the energy of these photographs for my family, and by extension, tainted our homes and hearts.

We do, at least in theory, have his ashes. Donor bodies, after they are studied by researchers or medical students, are usually cremated; we asked for the ashes to be returned to our family. My sister and I are not sure what to do with them. There is a possibility they are not him in the first place. And there’s no way to find out for sure: My sister, an experienced medical librarian, knows his DNA would not have survived the heat of cremation. Like so much else, the ashes are caught in a purgatory of uncertainty.

Stephanie Harzewski and her father, Vincent, in an undated photo.from Stephanie Harzewski

Last Christmas, when visiting my mother, I confronted the Priority Mail container that enclosed the receptacle of ashes. For weeks prior to my visit, I visualized approaching The Box, walking slowly, cautiously, like the first time I removed the body of a rat from my old condo’s basement, prodding it with a shovel to make sure it was unequivocally dead.

In the end, I walked into my mother’s spare bedroom and realized that I was giving this shipping box, like that rat, way more power than it had. My father was not coming back. Nor was he contained within this cube of cardboard. His life was so much bigger than a medium-size box labeled USPS Priority Mail.

It’s hard to reconcile the recent judgment of Harvard’s legal immunity with the overwhelming evidence that, for years, an employee allegedly used its morgue as a black-market butcher shop. The donor bodies affected have not been laid to rest. They circulate in a nether region, in a limbo: alive to collectors in the circuit of post-mortem commodities, but to their families, always out of reach.

For some people, I hope, the passage of time will mitigate the horror at the corruption of body and memory. For others, we may have to wait until we, too, cross over to meet our angels again, where they are light and whole.

Stephanie Harzewski is the eldest child of Vincent Harzewski. She teaches English and women’s studies at the University of New Hampshire. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.