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The Organ Grinder

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Cremations were another matter, the only time they went whole hog. Cruceta got to use a power tool when harvesting spine. For that, there was no repair, but he always took care to stuff some cloth into the hole “just so when they flipped it over, all the fluids wouldn’t go out into the cardboard box. Plus in Philadelphia, they didn’t even use cardboard boxes. They just wanted us to leave them on the stretcher because the crematorium was only a block away. So we would pack something in there, just so rolling this body out, they wouldn’t leave a trail of blood and body parts across the street.”

The work was often messy like that and sometimes “kind of odorous, kind of get to you a little bit,” but “it was just great work,” says Cruceta. If people only knew how careful they were, how they “did everything by the book,” they would understand, he says, that “it’s just not right” to call him a ghoul.

The neighbors of the Daniel George saw things differently. A woman who wouldn’t give her name described a sort of factory on overload—vans parking around back at all hours of the night, the workers, as they unloaded, often leaving a corpse or two on the sidewalk. “I can’t tell you how many times there’d be a full body bag on the sidewalk,” says another neighbor, Kathleen Donoghue, who also tells of “banging and clanging” going on in there late at night. In the morning, the anonymous neighbor would wake to find plastic garbage bags on the sidewalk, “and cats or whatever animals had gotten into it” and dragged out surgical gloves, aprons, bloodied cotton swabs. “It was just a total lack of respect for the neighborhood, for the families, for the deceased,” she says.

The sloppiness was owed, perhaps, to an overwhelming workload. In time, Mastromarino hired a funeral-director acquaintance of Nicelli’s, Chris Aldorasi, to help Cruceta with the harvest, and then a third member of the team to “back-table”—take the tissue as it comes off the corpse, bag it, and label it. Mastromarino left the dirty work to them and retreated to the company office, a large space on the third floor of a building along the highway in Fort Lee. By August 2003, Cruceta, too, was working full-time there, monitoring the freezers, shipping tissue, and harvesting at every chance. The only visitors, he recalls, were processors from RTI and another company, Tutogen. Mastromarino would meet with them behind a closed door and otherwise typically sat, behind a closed door, doing paperwork. He seemed to Cruceta “a very smart person, self-made.” Everyone, in fact, seemed like “normal business people,” and it seemed a perfectly normal business to be getting paid by the corpse. The funeral directors were tripping over themselves to get their $1,000 fee. Cruceta was doing up to 25 harvests a month and making $200 to $300 a harvest, plus salary. And Mastromarino, he figures, was probably earning, per body, between $10,000 and $15,000. (Gallucci claims it was $7,000 per at the most.)

The funeral homes were great storehouses of the dead, and harvesting from them was almost like finding money on the ground. The only obstacles were the industry standards. Not just any body would do. Corpses were not supposed to be too old or too diseased, and every body had to be harvested within 24 hours—15 if uncooled—and in the most sterile conditions. Because these standards are hard to meet in funeral homes, hardly anyone used to harvest there, but over the last five years, says the AATB’s Rigney, more tissue banks have started working in mortuaries.

It was to meet sterility standards at the Daniel George, says Gallucci, that Mastromarino “built with RTI and with the FDA’s approval” the so-called secret room. But Cruceta says that most of his work was done in regular, non-sterile embalming rooms and that most of the funeral homes had no refrigeration. They tried to harvest within 24 hours—but how do you know? He seemed untroubled by the violation of such rules. “All these bodies, they seemed okay to me. I never saw a body that was decomposing.”

What did begin to disturb Cruceta was the disregard for signs of disease. Sometimes “people were said to have died of cardiopulmonary arrest, and we’d open them up and find lesions on the bones. Obvious cancer.” In those cases, he would stop, he said—just box them up and go home. But in 2004, at New York Mortuary in Harlem, “it started to happen a lot.” Cruceta would arrive to find something jaundiced or malnourished, and when he called to tell the mortuary owners at their home, they would argue, without having seen the body, that it was “a good case.” “I had probably about half a dozen arguments with them,” Cruceta said. The worst part was that the owners would then get on the phone with Mastromarino, “tell him that I basically don’t want to work”—and the boss began to believe them. The pressure to harvest debatable bodies was such that Cruceta bought a cell phone capable of taking photographs. He began appealing directly to Mastromarino, and “that kind of helped a little,” he said, but the fire still had to be fed, and every corpse was a log.


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