The Bone Trade
December 4, 2007 10:49 PM   Subscribe

For 200 years, the city has been the center of a shadowy network of bone traders who snatch up skeletons in order to sell them to universities and hospitals abroad. In colonial times, British doctors hired thieves to dig up bodies from Indian cemeteries. Despite changes in laws, a similar process is going strong today. (More on the unsettling subject of the human bone trade from the author of the first link, and his Wired article too. And Photos.) Via the excellent Sepia Mutiny.
posted by serazin (15 comments total) 16 users marked this as a favorite

 
Great post. Very creepy. A very similar practice was common in the British Isles in the early 19th century, as the rise of medical schools demanded corpses for dissection, and outstripped the supply of convicted criminals. The Aberdeen medical school ws burnt to the ground around 1820 on account of it's role in grave robbing. So it wasn't just foreign graves that were being plundered.

But this also strikes close to home: in my teaching lab there are around 40 human skeletons purchased from catalogues, as well as a variety of miscellaneous skeletal parts (articulated hands, lonely femurs, etc, bought on sale!). We have known full well for years that the ultimate source of these skeletons may be ethically dubious. And yet, what to do? We have had numerous ceremonies to repatriate and rebury aboriginal remains which we had in our collection, and I believe 100% that these were appropriate actions of repatriation. And yet, and yet, to know we have a mini-mausoleum so that a bunch of Canadian kids can learn their olecranon fossae .... it doesn't seem consistent.

If you want your very own articulated human arm from India: 420$. A kneecap is only 50$, while a fetal skull is 800$, and articulated skeletons go for around 4500$:

Articulated Skeleton #721
Articulated male real bone skeleton with muscle insertions fom India. Thirty-two teeth in skull. In very good condition; full dentition, beautiful bone color and texture, and very good paint job.
$4,500 (Inquire for shipping)


Anyone can buy these over the internet.
posted by Rumple at 11:32 PM on December 4, 2007 [2 favorites]


Or, pick up a bargain on ebay
posted by Rumple at 11:37 PM on December 4, 2007


See also 'burking'.
posted by Kickstart70 at 11:51 PM on December 4, 2007


Re: burking
If you can find a copy of Death, Dissection and the Destitute, it's certainly worth a read.
posted by maryh at 12:42 AM on December 5, 2007


The resurrectionist trade is used as part of the novel The Dress Lodger which illustrates that the poor have been used in life and death. As one character put it roughly, when do the poor stop being worked by the wealthy? It was a nice historical novel with good 19th century details.
posted by jadepearl at 1:40 AM on December 5, 2007


BODY-SNATCHER, n. A robber of grave-worms. One who supplies the young physicians with that with which the old physicians have supplied the undertaker. The hyena.

"One night," a doctor said, "last fall,
I and my comrades, four in all,
When visiting a graveyard stood
Within the shadow of a wall.

"While waiting for the moon to sink
We saw a wild hyena slink
About a new-made grave, and then
Begin to excavate its brink!

"Shocked by the horrid act, we made
A sally from our ambuscade,
And, falling on the unholy beast,
Dispatched him with a pick and spade."
Bettel K. Jhones

(Ambrose Bierce)
posted by hortense at 2:01 AM on December 5, 2007


Awesome post, thanks! I do love me a good grave-robbing.
posted by grapefruitmoon at 3:04 AM on December 5, 2007


This is a pretty grisly practice that's all over the place. Fukizawa Yukichi talks about, as a poor young samurai, stealing dead bodies to sell to doctors in pre-opening Japan.
posted by absalom at 5:36 AM on December 5, 2007


I am not in the least surprised to read a story like this. There is an attitude that is uniquely Indian which shrugs and turns the other way when children are murdered for money. The ones who do care are fighting a tidal wave of indifference. I just feel utterly depressed because there is just a complete dearth of human kindness in certain Indians that allow this shit to happen unchallenged. Since my parents are upper caste I've heard the most right-wing, disgusting attitudes from their family and 'friends' to those who are born into a way of life they cannot ever escape (ie serves them right for being poor and low caste).
posted by gatchaman at 5:49 AM on December 5, 2007


I had the same cluster of gut reactions reading this: revulsion, fascination, WTFion, etc, as when I viewed the Bodyworlds exhibit when it came to our fair city. A difference being that the bodies in the exhibit were donated.

What I don't get is: don't we have a pretty healthy (nopunintended) organ donation system here in the States? What happened to harvesting ALL of the body? Do other countries have organ-donor systems in place? Culturally, the way the dead are treated varies, I'd bet, but can one of you hiveminders shed a lit of light on this corner--why is it that we don't have an adequate supply of ... of.... mmm...

...oop, gotta run, I'm getting hungry.
posted by not_on_display at 5:50 AM on December 5, 2007


What happened to harvesting ALL of the body?

Some people probably see a difference between having a kid seeing with their corneas, and having a med student hide their hand in someones lunch box.

Personally, I'm OK with either one.
posted by StickyCarpet at 6:37 AM on December 5, 2007


You think this is creepy, I know someone who used to broker organs, not for transplants, but for research. He was very clear that the real money in the business was made in "eye bits". He had a pager and would often have to run out of movies or dinner to grab his price book and close a deal before the parts "went off".
posted by Pastabagel at 7:59 AM on December 5, 2007


Looks like the author of the articles, Scott Carrier, showed up in the Sepia Mutiny thread about this.
posted by serazin at 9:43 AM on December 5, 2007


Oops, sorry - Scott Carney.
posted by serazin at 9:46 AM on December 5, 2007


This is an interesting post and topic. Thank you serazin.

I lived in West Bengal on and off for about six months, mostly in Calcutta (now spelled Kolkata) and in Birbhum District, near the bone collecting town, in Shantiniketan. I think Calcutta and that part of West Bengal have a special relationship with the symbols and realities of death.

The name of the city, Calcutta, is said to come from Kali, often depicted holding a skull amid the flames of a funeral pyre, dancing on a skeleton or trampling Shiva, with a necklace/rosary of skulls around her neck. The symbols are connected with attaining transcendence over worldly attachments and mindsets.

Kalighat Mandir is a Calcutta temple often flowing with the blood of many goats sacrificed there. The etymology of the word thug and based on thuggee is connected with certain Kali devotees.

Near Calcutta is a small village, known as Tarapith, where sadhus (aghoris) sit in the charnel ground (ghat), drink from skulls as part of their asceticism, renunciation and their meditation on impermanence. Their huts are often made of the skulls and bones of the dead.

In many tourist trap shops around the world, selling exotic knick knacks, one can buy knock offs of Tibetan Tantric ritual gear, like a thigh bone trumpet or skull cups, no doubt harvested from one of these West Bengali or Calcutta based bone traders.

While acknowledging the Calcuttans' spiritual rapport with the subject of death, for which I admire them, I also admire them for their capacity to value life and lives. For example, in spite of Calcutta being an extremely poor city, during the Bangladesh War in the late 1960's and early 1970's, Calcutta opened its doors to and embraced more than 1 million war refugees who escaped the slaughter. That astounded and inspired me when I saw this in the mid 1970's. Calcutta residents let the refugees sleep on the streets of the city, providing spaces for tents, camp grounds, made countless soup kitchens, found the refugees work and living space when possible, donating what was needed for the refugees' survival for many years.
posted by nickyskye at 10:18 AM on December 5, 2007 [2 favorites]


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