Postmortem, Ep. 2: The victims

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Amber Haggstrom's mom, Donna Pratt. (Courtesy of the family)
Amber Haggstrom's mom, Donna Pratt, donated her body to Harvard Medical School after her death. (Courtesy of the family)

When news of the Harvard morgue scandal went viral, no one was hit harder than the families of people who had donated their bodies for study at the nation's most prestigious medical school. As if grieving the loss of a loved one wasn't enough, now there was this: the specter of a family member's body dismembered and sold to strangers for profit.

In Episode 2 of Postmortem: The Stolen Bodies of Harvard, reporter Ally Jarmanning talks with Amber Haggstrom, whose mother donated her body to Harvard after death. We hear Haggstrom's outrage and raw emotion as she learns the news — and her frustration at Harvard's lack of answers as to how it failed to protect her mother's body.

We hear, too, from the attorney representing the families, and trying to hold Harvard accountable.

If you have questions, comments or tips about this story, you can reach us at


Ally Jarmanning: A heads up, this episode could get graphic, at times. We're talking about dead bodies here. Take care while listening. 

Ally Jarmanning: It's a couple of weeks before Halloween, and I'm driving around a New Hampshire suburb.

Ally Jarmanning (on tape): It's a very cute neighborhood. Every house has some pumpkins in the front yard.

Ally Jarmanning: There are lots of kids here — I can tell by the bicycles piled up in the driveways and swing sets in the yards. It's the kind of neighborhood that seems perfect for trick-or-treating. I can imagine the swarms of kids traipsing around in costumes in just a few weeks.

Ally Jarmanning (on tape): This house has a 12-foot skeleton in front of it, a skeleton with sunglasses on waving from the front porch.

Ally Jarmanning: Spooky season is in full swing here. Almost every single house is decked out for the holiday.

Ally Jarmanning (on tape): There's no shortage of Halloween in this neighborhood. If you wanted to get away from it, there's not much way to do that.

Ally Jarmanning: I'm here to meet with Amber Haggstrom. She's the woman you met at the end of the last episode. She got the letter from Harvard as she waited outside for her son to get off the bus.

It's been almost exactly four months since that day in June. The day the thefts at Harvard were exposed to the world.

News reel: Prosecutors say a morgue at Harvard became a macabre marketplace for heads, brains, skin, bones, and other body parts. The accused grisly shopkeeper? Morgue manager Cedric Lodge.

Ally Jarmanning: Cedric Lodge's alleged scheme went on for at least four years. He's facing federal charges — along with others accused of taking part in the nationwide body parts network.

And while that kicked off a flurry of news coverage and court proceedings and PR cleanup from Harvard, the news of the thefts caused something much more profound for people like Amber and the other families of donors.

It interrupted their grief. It reopened wounds that had just begun to heal.

When their loved ones died, they knew what to do. They could follow that well-trod path of grief. Routines and rituals. Wakes and funerals.

Others knew how to respond: "I'm so sorry for your loss."

They got their loved one's ashes back and put them on a shelf or scattered them on a beach. They said goodbye again.

There was a finality to death. The questions were answered. Their loved one was gone. They knew what happened.

At least, they thought they did.

My name is Ally Jarmanning. And this is Last Seen: Postmortem, the series about the bodies — the people — stolen from Harvard Medical School.

Episode 2: The victims.

Ally Jarmanning (on tape): Hi, how are you? It's so nice to meet you.

Amber Haggstrom: Nice to meet you.

Ally Jarmanning (on tape): Your neighborhood is so cute.

Amber Haggstrom: Aw, thank you. It's great for the kids.

Ally Jarmanning: Amber's house is dedicated to her family — photos from family trips are on the walls and shelves are filled with her kids' books. Dirt bike helmets are piled by the back door. She sent her husband and the boys to visit the grandparents today so we could talk.

Ally Jarmanning (on tape): Also, I can't believe how neat your house is for having three boys.

Amber Haggstrom: Oh, I worked on it a lot yesterday.

Ally Jarmanning (on tape): I mean, very clear that boys live here, but, um.

Amber Haggstrom: Yes, oh, well, for sure. It's never ever this clean. No.

Ally Jarmanning: I'm here to talk to Amber about her mom, Donna Pratt. It's hard to sum up Donna. She was doting grandmother.

Amber Haggstrom: Everything that the kids wanted to do, she would do. She would totally get down to their level.

Ally Jarmanning: An avid thrifter. A devout Catholic. A road tripper.

Amber Haggstrom: We even did a trip to Canada, Niagara Falls, New York, Connecticut, Rhode Island, everywhere.

Ally Jarmanning: A crafter. A gardener. She could do basic electrical work and car maintenance.

Amber Haggstrom: She used to even take out her oil pans and she'd be like, come on, Amber, I'm going to go and teach you how to change the oil now.

Ally Jarmanning: She found it hard to throw anything away.

Amber Haggstrom: She was like, there could be a time where I need this.

Ally Jarmanning: And Amber can't bring herself to get rid of anything of her mom's. She still has her toolbox. The Christmas tree skirt she made. The baby blanket her mom never finished.

Amber and Donna were incredibly close. Even through those teenage years where mothers and daughters can butt heads.

Amber Haggstrom: She was a single mom. Pretty much my whole life growing up it was just me and her.

When I was growing up, she always said, I'm going to focus on you, and I'm not going to have a boyfriend and I'm not going to remarry. I'm going to focus your whole life and just everything was about me and how I grew up.

Ally Jarmanning: Donna, on her hairdresser's salary, always made sure Amber had what she needed. Plus had some fun. On road trips, Donna would be at the wheel of her 1989 Cutlass Supreme, Amber in the passenger seat helping navigate.

Amber Haggstrom: Everything was just always an experience. Everything with her. She was so knowledgeable in so many different ways.

Ally Jarmanning (on tape): She made your life a lot bigger.

Amber Haggstrom: A lot bigger. A lot bigger.

Ally Jarmanning: In 2015, Donna got sick. Lung cancer, the doctors said. She'd never even smoked.

Amber and her husband fixed up their basement to make room for Donna as she went through treatment. It was such a comfort to Amber to have Donna just downstairs. And her sons loved having their babcha so close.

Amber Haggstrom: They would go downstairs, have movie time, popcorn. They would bake cookies together. They would, oh my gosh, do everything. And read, my mom loved to read to them.

Ally Jarmanning: There was a lot of joy in the house during those years. But also the realities of illness. Doctor's visits, treatment, surgery. And discussions about what would happen after Donna died.

Donna had a plan: She wanted to donate her body to Harvard Medical School. Of course, she couldn't help but make a little joke about it.

Amber Haggstrom: She never fully graduated high school. So, she was like, why not just go straight to Harvard? So that's what she did. She graduated from Fazio's Hairdressing School. And then after that she goes straight to Harvard.

Ally Jarmanning: It was like Donna to make a plan like this. Funerals are expensive, even the cheap ones. She didn't want to burden anyone, even after death.

Amber Haggstrom: So there was no doubt in her mind that she was like, this is what I'm doing. I want to give back. And then she was like, you know, this is my body. She was like, obviously, I want it cherished. This is me. But if I can give back to students, she was like, I would love to. There was no doubt in her mind. And especially she had her, a full trust in Harvard as well, complete trust.

Ally Jarmanning: For five years, Donna dealt with her illness the same way she managed all the other difficult periods in her life — with determination, and laughter. Even when the tumors started to take over.

Amber Haggstrom: We're leaving the hospital and they said, "OK, you have to get in touch with hospice," and that hit me like a ton of bricks because when you say the word hospice, you know that there's not too much time left. But we're walking out of that hospital, my mom was laughing. She was like, I'm going to teach them.

But as the weeks progressed, you could start noticing a change.

She wasn't getting up in the morning like she normally would. Then she slowed down on eating. She slowed down on drinking.

And then it got to the point where she couldn't shower on her own. I bathed her. I washed her hair. I didn't mind it. I did not mind taking care of her at all. Obviously, I felt sad inside. But she did all of that for me when I was, you know, growing up, and she would do anything in her power to be there for me and to do things for me, so I'm returning the favor.

Ally Jarmanning: Their last night together, Amber fed her mom her favorite meal: haddock, and a little bit of ginger ale. She slept that night beside Donna.

Amber Haggstrom: I got up, and I looked at the clock, and I looked over at my mom, and I noticed my mom's breathing was very, very shallow. And it was early in the morning, and I stood up, I put my hand on my mom, and I looked at her, and I said, "Mom." She stopped breathing right then and there.

Ally Jarmanning: The grief crushed her, yet the knowledge of where Donna would go next — to Harvard — was a small solace for Amber.

Amber Haggstrom: Knowing what she was going to be doing with her body afterwards gave me comfort because I knew that she was going to be having her body go to the advancement of science and I was very excited for that, for her wishes to be fulfilled. And like mom are going to be a part of something very big for, you know, younger generation's future.

Ally Jarmanning: Harvard kept Donna's body for two years. In that time, Amber had a third baby, another boy. She read her sons books Donna had gotten them. She planted a garden with her mom's favorite flowers: hibiscus, a rose bush, a giant lilac.

In 2022, she finally got a call from Harvard saying her mom's remains were ready to be picked up. She asked the staffer on the phone: What did the students learn from my mother? That's confidential, the person told her.

Donna's ashes showed up in a black box, a gold seal taped on the opening. It felt like the return of something she'd been missing.

Amber Haggstrom: Having her back, it was very, very comforting. Very comforting. I felt like I had my mom back in a way, even though she couldn't talk back, but I could still talk to her. And even though I definitely believe in a spirit and an afterlife, but still having her with me brought a lot of closure that I really desperately needed.

Ally Jarmanning: She put her mom on top of the fridge, close by, but out of the way of her rambunctious boys. She tucked the box behind the jar filled with her mom's hot cocoa mix, her favorite drink. She'd tell her mom about her new job working at a florist shop, the stress of balancing home with work.

Donna's ashes stayed there, above her daughter's head in the kitchen, for more than a year.

Then the letter from Harvard came in June, telling Amber about what Cedric Lodge was accused of doing. Donna had arrived at Harvard in February 2020 and her cremated remains were returned in 2022. Donna was at Harvard, right smack dab in the middle of when Cedric Lodge was allegedly picking apart bodies.

Amber Haggstrom: I read the first couple lines and I almost dropped to the ground. I thought I was going to throw up.

Ally Jarmanning: She read the letter as she stood at the end of her driveway, waiting for her oldest son, Mack, to get off the school bus. It was his last day of second grade. Her two younger boys stood next to her, one with a little sign for his big brother. It was supposed to be a happy day.

Amber Haggstrom: I literally took this paper and like threw it. And I just was, I was on the verge of fainting and I'm like, oh my God. I'm like, my worst fears are coming true.

Ally Jarmanning: The yellow school bus rounded the corner. And she tried to channel her mom's strength.

Amber Haggstrom: I'm bawling my eyes out, wiping my tears away. I'm like, Amber, put this all aside for now. You'll figure this out later. You need to focus on Mack. He gets off the bus, I run up to him, give him a huge hug and say I'm so proud of you for your second year of school and now you're going to be on to the third grade. I'm so proud of you buddy. But inside I am shattered, absolutely shattered with what I just read.

Ally Jarmanning: Later, Amber watched the news.

Amber Haggstrom: And I'm like, oh my God. I'm like, this has to do with Harvard. I should probably pay attention to this for a minute. And then all of a sudden, a skull pops up on TV.

I knew my mom inside and out. I knew every little bit of her. So I paused the TV to look and see if those were her teeth. Because I knew what her teeth looked like. And, thank goodness it was not. But still, anything ever pops up, I'm always looking to see if those are my mother's teeth.

Ally Jarmanning: Amber and I are talking in October. It's almost Halloween. One of Donna's favorite holidays. She'd dress up like Dracula, hand out candy with the kids, decorate her living room with plastic skulls and cobwebs.

Amber used to do the same. But not this year. It's too much.

Amber Haggstrom: I can't really stand anything scary right now. I can't. One minute, I feel like I'm doing OK, my heart palpitations are going down, my anxiety is going down, and then boom, something happens. You know, whether it's something to do with this situation or something that I'm seeing, like, you know, a skeleton.

Ally Jarmanning: Because all Amber can think, when she sees those plastic Halloween skulls and skeletons: What if her mom is someone's Halloween decoration?

Amber Haggstrom: I hate having all these questions in my head because it just, it haunts me every single day. Oh my gosh, I'm sorry. The thing that, you know, like somebody even has my mom's head on a stinking mantle. As a decoration. Or has my mom's skin, like, he was taking skin and making these, like, these buttons and things out of it, or lampshades and all this sick stuff that you see.

That's my mom! Oh, God. She selflessly donated to them.

Ally Jarmanning: In the letter Amber and all the other families got from Harvard, Medical School Dean George Daley said he was "profoundly saddened" to report the accusations against Cedric Lodge. It continued on to say that they were working with the feds and looking at their own internal paperwork to determine which donors may have been quote "impacted."

What the next paragraph said grouped families into two categories.

One set got: "We cannot rule out the potential that your loved ones remains may have been impacted." Essentially, they might’ve been stolen.

The other group: "At this time, we do not believe that your loved one's remains were impacted." That's what Amber got.

The difference doesn't mean much to her, though. Her mom's body was there during the peak of Cedric Lodge's alleged thefts. How could Harvard be sure her mom's body was left undisturbed?

She joined one of a dozen lawsuits family members filed against Harvard. Hundreds of families signed on, all seeking the answer to the same question: How did this happen?

Amber Haggstrom: Ugh, it's just such, the amount of negligence that is here is astonishing. It's astonishing. This should have never, ever happened. This is the world's most reputable school. This is not some little community college somewhere.

Bailiff: Hear ye, hear ye, hear ye. All persons having anything to do before the Honorable Judge Salinger, Justice of the Superior Court, now sitting at Boston, within and for the county of Suffolk.

Ally Jarmanning: After the break, the families go to court for answers.

Ally Jarmanning: On a Friday afternoon this past January, I sat with a handful of other reporters in the 10th floor courtroom at Suffolk Superior Courthouse in Boston. I watched as the courtroom filled with family members. The hearing was also being streamed on Zoom and I saw more and more faces pop up as it got closer to the hearing time. People signed on from work, from their bedrooms. I saw couples at the kitchen table together, staring into the screen, all waiting to hear what Harvard would have to say. By the time the hearing began, more than 150 people were logged on.

The judge seemed to be aware of all the eyes and ears on the proceedings.

Judge Salinger: We've got a lot of people in the courtroom. Let's make sure we use our big courtroom voices so that they'll get picked up on the microphone and our audience can hear you.

Ally Jarmanning: We were all there because Harvard didn't think it should be sued at all. Cedric Lodge, yes, the attorneys argued. But not the institution of Harvard, and not his two supervisors — Tracey Fay and Mark Cicchetti — who attorney Martin Murphy was there to defend.

Martin Murphy: The plaintiffs, uh, essentially allege that because, um, Mr. Lodge worked at Harvard, Harvard is responsible for his, uh, actions, uh, and we think that that's simply wrong under the, under the case law.

Ally Jarmanning: Harvard's attorneys argued they're immune from any lawsuits — thanks to the state's Uniform Anatomical Gift Act. That law says that so long as an institution acts in what’s called "good faith," they can't be sued.

Martin Murphy: We're entitled to dismissal because the backs of the complaint don't plausibly suggest either bad faith on the part of Harvard as an institution, Mr. Cicchetti or Ms. Fay, or suggest that Mr. Lodge was acting with the intent to benefit Harvard, or that this was part of his job to be selling individuals' parts on the open market. There's no allegation in the complaint that was part of his job.

Ally Jarmanning: Kathryn Barnett, the families’ lawyer, pressed for the answer to the big question on her clients' minds: What did Harvard know about what Lodge allegedly did?

Kathryn Barnett: Harvard controlled their morgue. It was on their property, in their space. Lodge went in, carted out parts of the loved ones of our families, carrying them out. He let in nefarious characters over the course of years, willy-nilly, without any fear of detection, to pick and choose among the remains.

Harvard's response to our lawsuit wasn't to answer the lawsuit, but to file this motion to say we're immune, we acted in good faith, but Harvard doesn't want to allow any discovery. Harvard's position is just take our word for it.

Ally Jarmanning: Barnett and the families' attorneys tried to get at those questions, but that wasn't what this hearing was about. I felt bad for the families watching as lawyers droned on in legal jargon.

Martin Murphy: If the court looks at section 14H of the 2012 Act...

Ally Jarmanning: The case turned on arcane statutes.

Kathryn Barnett: And again, under Rule 12, in deciding whether to dismiss...

Ally Jarmanning: And legislative intent.

Jeff Catalano: Under the 12b6 standard that Harvard acted in bad faith...

Ally Jarmanning: And whether a law designed originally to protect the organ donation process applied to the case of a rogue employee slicing up bodies after medical students were done with their work.

A few weeks later, the judge's decision dropped. Harvard — they won.

The judge ruled that Harvard is immune, that the school and Cedric's supervisors acted "in good faith." He wrote that the families' lawyers don't have evidence that anyone at Harvard knew what Cedric Lodge was doing down in the morgue.

The judge said what Lodge did was as if a random stranger broke into the morgue and stole body parts.

The families’ attorneys have already filed an appeal. But that will likely take many more months.

The lawsuit dismissal doesn’t just mean Harvard won't have to pay up. It means there's no chance for what's called the discovery process against Harvard. That's where the families' lawyers can get information like Cedric Lodge's personnel file, logs of where the bodies were held and for how long, documents about security and procedures in the morgue.

Kathryn Barnett: These are basic, basic things that presumably Harvard could just turn over, but they've refused to and now they're out of the case.

Ally Jarmanning: I called up attorney Kathryn Barnett after the case was dismissed.

Kathryn Barnett: It's appalling to the families I represent, to think that Harvard's position is this: We take no responsibility, we will give you no answers until, you know, go pound sand, we'll see you in court, and only until we are forced to do it, will we turn anything over.

Ally Jarmanning: The lawsuit also could have forced Harvard into DNA testing any recovered remains. Perhaps the buckets of body parts found in the Pennsylvania basement could belong to a Harvard family.

Kathryn Barnett: If any part of one of those is a part of a loved one of a family I represent, of course I want to get it back for them, and they want it back.

Ally Jarmanning: It's been almost a year now of nightmares for Amber. In one, she can't find her mom in the house.

Amber Haggstrom: So I went on a search to find her and I found her in the woods without her head. And just everything just covered in blood. And it was, it was horrible.

Ally Jarmanning: Or in another one, an old trash can washes up on the beach. It's filled with fruits and vegetables.

Amber Haggstrom: And then I started digging through it. And then I found my mom's head on the bottom. And it's just, they just, they don't stop and it's, it's horrifying

Ally Jarmanning: Her anger, and anguish, it's as fresh as it was that day she read the letter from Harvard. It hasn't faded. She knows it won't.

Amber Haggstrom: I shouldn't have to be going through this. And I have to go through this for the rest of my life. The rest of my life. My mom passed away first from lung cancer and I knew what it was. And then to have all of this come about is just nonstop questions and I will never have answers. I'll never ever have answers.

Ally Jarmanning: Family members have told me that this is like a brand new grief, a new wound on top of the one that's barely healed. They can't tell others what happened; People don't know how to respond. They've even kept the news from their siblings, their children, sometimes. The unknowing is too painful. And they don't want to pass that pain onto others.

I think I understand this choice. Because the stories and anguish they've shared, they stick with me. Some of what they’ve told me, the torment they’re living with, I can’t shake.

Anne Flanagan told me about her mother, Billie.

After Billie died, Anne dressed her mother in her favorite clothes. She didn't want her to go to Harvard in her nightgown. Anne remembers the outfit: Billie wore a pretty striped shirt, a wool vest and a nice pair of slacks. Her socks matched the vest.

It was Anne who came up with the idea to donate to Harvard. She suggested it to her mom, who agreed. Now, she drowns in this guilt.

Anne Flanagan: I introduced the idea of body donation. So in a lot of ways, I feel like this is my fault, you know, that I, that we got into this mess.

It's just unbearable. I did this. I put her in that position.

Ally Jarmanning: Lara Szent-Gyorgyi can't stop picturing her mom, Gwen, in the morgue, as Cedric Lodge allegedly brought buyers in to shop for parts. Did collectors appraise her 87-year-old mother's naked and feeble body, deciding whether it was worth anything?

Lara Szent-Gyorgyi: My mom was an old woman. She would be the first person to say, "My decrepit body was just lying there." And she would be just horrified. And then that somebody was, for whatever motivation was buying part of her, like that would just be — like she'd be so angry.

I am angry that this happened to my mom. Like, all I can think of is how embarrassed and furious she would be.

Ally Jarmanning: Both of Paula Peltonovich's parents donated their bodies to Harvard. Her dad died in 2019; she lost her mom just a year ago, in March 2023.

When the news about the thefts broke three months later, it was too late for her dad. They had already buried his ashes. But her mom, Joan, was still in the morgue. Paula couldn't stand to leave her there, so she scrambled to get her mother back.

And she trusted Harvard so little, that she needed to see her mother's body for herself.

Paula Peltonovich: I wanted to make sure it was my mom. So I had to view my mom. To make sure it was her, and it was. Thank God.

We've all been sick about it. Imagine if that's your father or your mother.

Ally Jarmanning: There are hundreds and hundreds more people like Paula and Lara and Anne and Amber, all carrying around this new, heavier grief. Grief they thought they had already dealt with. Grief that doesn't have an end date.

Amber finds herself talking to her mom's ashes less. That comfort she felt when the box returned from Harvard, that connection, it's not the same.

Amber Haggstrom: The bond that I originally had has been dwindling. And that's been very, very difficult because I once felt whole again and now I feel completely empty. Now, it's more tragic. Way more tragic. Because before, it's like, you go on with your new normal and you accept everything. And you at least try to accept as much as possible. And, but with this, I can't accept it.

Ally Jarmanning: The reason Amber and these other families are experiencing this new grief is because there's a market for their loved ones' bodies. Cedric Lodge wasn't allegedly stealing brains and skin for no reason. He was selling these parts. He was meeting a demand.

So, I set out to find some of the people who buy human remains. There’s a lot of them. They’re extremely online, and they’re not hiding.

I decided to start with the guy whose arrest unraveled this whole scheme. The guy keeping the body parts in five-gallon buckets in his Pennsylvania basement. A guy who, so far, hasn’t answered anyone’s questions: Jeremy Pauley.

Ally Jarmanning: Hi, how are you?

Jeremy Pauley: Good.

Ally Jarmanning (on tape): I'm, I'm Ally. I'm a reporter with WBUR.

Ally Jarmanning: Next time on Postmortem: the buyers.


Headshot of Ally Jarmanning

Ally Jarmanning Senior Reporter
Ally is a senior reporter focused on criminal justice and police accountability.


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Paul Vaitkus Production Manager, Podcasts
Paul Vaitkus is the production manager for WBUR's podcast department and is responsible for all things audio.



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