"osteologically real, but culturally fake"
September 8, 2019 4:15 AM   Subscribe

Under U.S. law, there's no way to keep your loved one's skulls after they die, even if they wanted you to. Caitlin Doughty investigates why. Meanwhile, there's a thriving trade in human skulls—often carved and decorated—on Instagram.

A few years ago, Tumblr exploded in the scandal known as Boneghazi, when a poster offered to ship human bones they'd taken from a graveyard to other witches for use in rituals.

Previously: Victor Seiche's hand-carved animal skulls.
posted by daisyk (37 comments total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
posted by Fizz at 4:18 AM on September 8, 2019 [2 favorites]

When my brother and I were clearing out my grandmother’s attic, we found a bunch of my dad’s art school stuff, letters, drawings, art supplies, etc. Also a human skull. Definitely real. We guessed that my dad had stolen it from the art school’s famous nature lab which features all sorts of taxidermied animals and natural specimens, including several human skeletons. After doing the requisite “poor Yorick” bit my brother called dibs and now has the skull on his shelf which is fine with me. I did not want it.
posted by fancyoats at 5:12 AM on September 8, 2019 [1 favorite]

Whelp. This is going to crush one of my friends’ dreams.
posted by brook horse at 5:13 AM on September 8, 2019 [4 favorites]

I just realised that one of the stories that got Vina Jie-Min Prasad nominated for a Hugo this year, Portrait of Skull with Man, is relevant here. (Discovering Prasad's work was the best part of the whole 2019 Hugos process for me.)
posted by daisyk at 5:30 AM on September 8, 2019 [4 favorites]

Metafilter: There is no “cut off the head, de-flesh it, preserve the skull, and then cremate the rest of the body” option. Nothing even close.
posted by lalochezia at 5:53 AM on September 8, 2019 [14 favorites]

Back in junior high school in the 1960s, the drama club put on You Can't Take it With You by Kaufman and Hart. The script calls for "one of those plaster-paris skulls ordinarily used as an ashtray, but which serves Penelope as a candy jar." This posed a challenge to the prop department. Ceramic or plastic versions of such a thing are easily obtainable today, but we had a hard time finding one. But somebody had a real skull they let us borrow and allowed us to adapt as we saw fit. A cast member took it home and painted it. Their dog ate one of the teeth. Then a dome-shaped lid was fashioned in the school metal shop, and screwed to the cranium with a hinge. Prop creation accomplished. Nowadays we'd probably make headlines on Fox with demands that the drama coach be fired for permitting corpse desecration.
posted by beagle at 5:53 AM on September 8, 2019 [7 favorites]

Whelp. This is going to crush one of my friends’ dreams.

This crushes one of my dreams! My best friend has always said he wants to donate his body to science, and he also has unusually dense bones, apparently. And I've always called dibs on a femur. The rest of his body science can do with as it wishes, but that femur is supposed to be mine!! (I have offered him the bones of his choice of my own if I die first but he inexplicably doesn't want to take me up on the offer.) Anyway I'm grumpy. Who do I have to vote into office so I can legally display my bestie's huge leg bone on my mantel in my creepy old age?
posted by Mizu at 5:54 AM on September 8, 2019 [6 favorites]

I’ll bet Elizabeth Warren has a plan for that
posted by saturday_morning at 6:06 AM on September 8, 2019 [23 favorites]

Reminds me of the scene from Slings and Arrows where a character attempting to fulfill a director's last request is told by the undertaker that he can remove the head, but in order to do the actual rendering he should seek out one of the less reputable taxidermists.

(Also, I have a stage props and Caitlin Doughty story which I may as well tell. I was a contemporary and acquaintance of hers at the University of Chicago and specifically University Theater. She directed (and possibly also wrote? my memory is fuzzy) a very fun adaptation of several Poe stories, and I remember watching her version of The Pit and the Pendulum, and wondering why the wall of torture implements looked so familiar. It took me half way through the scene to realize that most of them were just the disassembled pieces of an old-style apple peeler/corer/slicer)
posted by firechicago at 6:32 AM on September 8, 2019 [8 favorites]

I remember being fascinated when the crew of the Six Million Dollar Man found a dead body (being used as a prop), while setting up for a shoot in an amusement park haunted house - interesting back story.
posted by bonobothegreat at 6:38 AM on September 8, 2019 [13 favorites]

My friend Craig (who shares an interest in cryonics/cryogenics) once asked me if I would get my whole body frozen or just the head. I told him I would get just my body frozen...all those people that just got their heads frozen? Yeah, they're gonna need bodies. That's where the money's at.
posted by sexyrobot at 7:01 AM on September 8, 2019 [17 favorites]

Seems like the dodge would be to export the body (poor dad always wanted to visit India and because he didn't make it asked to be buried there) and then arrange for the skeletization there. Then because possession in the US is legal you could bring the skull home in your carry-on.
posted by Mitheral at 7:02 AM on September 8, 2019 [6 favorites]

When I was a child in the 1970s and local education departments had a lot more cash to splash around (though they were complaining about the cuts even then), they would send interesting museum exhibits around to display in schools for a bit. So my primary school had a skeleton of the kind medical students were supposed to acquire literally hanging around for a few months, and it was interesting and not spooky at all.

Now I was completely freaked out by graveyards at the time, but it only struck me the other day when the school skeleton came up in conversation that I was much more disturbed by human skeletons I knew were down there somewhere but couldn't see, than one that was right there in front of my, that I could touch and arrange into humorous postures.

There was also a skull, which we were told was that of a woman who had died of cancer in her thirties (though I realise now that teachers used to lie about irrelevant things a lot more in those days). The skull we could turn over in our hands and inspect in great detail. I remember not liking her teeth much.

And then I'd go back to taking long cuts to avoid going anywhere near the graveyard.

Minds are weird things, aren't they?
posted by Grangousier at 7:12 AM on September 8, 2019 [4 favorites]

Caitlin Doughty's Ask a Mortician is my favorite YouTube channel.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 7:57 AM on September 8, 2019 [4 favorites]

Thanks for this - for me it's a very timely post. I was at a workshop on Friday with the artist Sue Jones whose work involves a lot of human bones, including skulls. We spent a fascinating 90 minutes hold, photographing and drawing a variety of skulls, all legally and properly acquired and all treated very respectfully. It was a lot more emotional than I expected.

Each skull travels in its own box with the letter from the coroner confirming its origins and that Sue has the right to have it. She said her biggest fear is getting into a car crash and the police looking into the back of her car to see a selection of human remains...
posted by YoungStencil at 8:17 AM on September 8, 2019 [12 favorites]

> Metafilter: There is no “cut off the head, de-flesh it, preserve the skull, and then cremate the rest of the body” option. Nothing even close.

First, be smart from the very beginning....
posted by Reclusive Novelist Thomas Pynchon at 8:24 AM on September 8, 2019 [27 favorites]

One of the big reasons this is something we don't let people do is because of the long history of treating remains incredibly disrespectfully during the Victorian era in particular. This piece just gently touches on that in the "abuse-of-corpses laws exist for a reason" paragraph, but there used to be a thriving preserved body trade in human remains from various ethnic groups and from humans with disabilities or bodily abnormalities that looked interesting. This was especially rough on indigenous peoples in the US, because the prevailing opinion at the time was that First Nations people were in the process of peacefully dying out because they just couldn't coexist with white people in North America, and there was a definite air of white regret at the dying but also fear that these people and cultures would be LOST TO SCIENCE without preservation and study.

(This was not true, obviously: First Nations peoples were in the process of being actively suppressed and undergoing genocide, and there was nothing "peaceful" about the changes that were happening; in addition, there was nothing inevitable about the attempted eradication of indigenous peoples that happened here.)

But that big white cultural nostalgia thing mean that there was huge demand for primary specimens from indigenous cultures and bodies for the museum trade. That resulted in a lot of grave desecration and horrific treatment of bodies as well as cultures, which is in large part why owning indigenous remains is specifically illegal in the US. I believe there were even some cases in which skeletal collectors are thought to have murdered people in order to harvest the bones for sale to anthropological collections.

There is also a lot of historical and current racist treatment of other bones and bodily remains of other non-white people in the US, incidentally, in particular the practice of "war trophies" made of the bodies of Japanese servicemen being brought home with US military personnel after WWII. There have been whole books written on the topic.

So long story short: I would be very uncomfortable with attempts to change this law, because it exists as a result of white people doing some phenomenally horrifying things to the bodies of other people. There are really good reasons we don't let people do this sort of thing, and it has to do with the way that the bodies of marginalized groups of people wind up being handled in particular.

For what it's worth, I know for a fact that Doughty knows this and would be very surprised if she didn't go into more detail on it elsewhere in her book; I believe it definitely has come up elsewhere in her video series. I just figured it would be important context for this discussion of those laws here.
posted by sciatrix at 8:35 AM on September 8, 2019 [36 favorites]

tl; dr: white people ruin everything, and this is why we can't have nice things like enacting my own roomie's dream to have her body placed in the middle of tree saplings to be grafted around and over her corpse, encouraging people in a century to find a giant tree that looks like it somehow ate a person.
posted by sciatrix at 8:37 AM on September 8, 2019 [17 favorites]

In 2008 David Tennant used the skull of the late pianist André Tchaíkowsky in a performance of Hamlet. I don't think the audience knew so as not to detract from the performance but it was his dying wish apparently. I would love to know how this was actually arranged.
posted by RandomInconsistencies at 8:40 AM on September 8, 2019 [7 favorites]

Doughty spoke at XOXO yesterday, which was marvelous. In telling her backstory, she revealed she was responsible for the renaming of the University of Chicago's coffee shop to Hallowed Grounds.
posted by fifteen schnitzengruben is my limit at 8:46 AM on September 8, 2019 [6 favorites]

RandomInconsistencies - apparently true. According to someone I met who saw it, you could tell because it was being handled so much more carefully than a normal prop skull. This could still be urban legend, of course.
posted by YoungStencil at 8:56 AM on September 8, 2019 [1 favorite]

I don't have a problem with family or close friends wanting a bone, as described here, but commercial trade in body parts creeps me the fuck out. There's a curiosity shop here in Seattle that I wandered into one day, and I was pretty horrified to realize that the display in the back contained the mummified remains of two people, and it wasn't just a creepy mannequin or something. I prefer some warning if I'm about to stare at a dead person, thanks.
posted by vibratory manner of working at 9:23 AM on September 8, 2019 [3 favorites]

posted by BrotherCaine at 10:22 AM on September 8, 2019

I jokingly said that if anyone wanted my skull, after I was finished with it, to drink mead out of all Valhalla-style, that I am willing to deed it to them. One of my friends, jokingly, asked for it. I haven't got around to writing her into my will, but now I should see about how to do that.

Have you ever stopped to think that when you brush your teeth, it's the only time you clean your skeleton?
posted by Multicellular Exothermic at 10:49 AM on September 8, 2019 [9 favorites]

I was much more disturbed by human skeletons I knew were down there somewhere but couldn't see

did u kno: there is a human skeleton inside of you RIGHT NOW that you can't see
posted by poffin boffin at 11:00 AM on September 8, 2019 [21 favorites]

My husband inherited a human skull from his uncle. We love it!
posted by supermedusa at 11:02 AM on September 8, 2019 [3 favorites]

I really miss Slings and Arrows being available on a streaming service.
posted by thivaia at 12:40 PM on September 8, 2019 [2 favorites]

It does seem fair that if you kill your archenemy with a battle axe that you should be able to keep the skull. No questions asked.
posted by biffa at 1:51 PM on September 8, 2019 [3 favorites]

I mean, a consent clause would help most of the issues that made the law needed in the first place. I mean, I've signed up to leave my body to science and/or medicine, but it would be cool to have my skull sitting on someone's shelf freaking people out if science and medicine don't need it.

...I wonder if Canada has a law against that.
posted by Canageek at 2:39 PM on September 8, 2019 [1 favorite]

I would be very uncomfortable with attempts to change this law, because it exists as a result of white people doing some phenomenally horrifying things to the bodies of other people.

There are reports of the discovery and interment of Nazi medical specimens every few years, most recently a few months ago. The specimens typically came from people murdered to order. For these victims, at least, there is rarely any protest about the preservation of scientific knowledge, etc. – I understand that remains collected during the colonial era are not afforded such respect.

A more troubling question is Eduard Pernkopf's Anatomy, a medical atlas of the human body. Pernkopf was a fervent Nazi, and an anatomical illustrator with unparalleled access to human remains. The illustrations he and his team (which included other Nazis) are unsurpassed and are still referred to. How should we treat this work, some editions of which still contain stylised swastikas? Is it more moral to refrain from using something so steeped in original sin, or should we hold our figurative noses and learn from it what we can? I don't know.
posted by Joe in Australia at 5:07 PM on September 8, 2019 [6 favorites]

I...I was just assuming that drinking from the skull of my enemies was achievable... Well, will need to think of an alternative plan, now.

But seriously, there are so many fascinating stories of the quest for human remains. Edinburgh was known as the Resurrectionist capital of Europe and even novels, such as The Dress Lodger makes it clear that the poor have been victims in both their living and dying.
posted by jadepearl at 5:41 PM on September 8, 2019

if you kill your archenemy with a battle axe that you should be able to keep the skull. No questions asked.

Are you holding the battleaxe during potential question periods? 'Cause that would tend to minimize the number of questions.
posted by Mitheral at 6:00 PM on September 8, 2019 [1 favorite]

It was a lot more emotional than I expected.

This. About the only thing I truly miss from working in archaeology is working with human remains. It's a deeply tender and gentle thing to have been a part of, and I remember every human skeleton I had contact with. It was an honor to handle their remains, to touch them and take care of them. I was really pleased to see sciatrix's comment especially; this is a hard subject with a painful history and I'd be cautious about changing the laws.

(I also have a lot of feelings around people seeing or being around human remains without said people's consent. I have...mixed feelings about David Tennant using a real human skull in Hamlet; I trust that the cast and crew were all respectful, and I'm happy that Tchaíkowsky had his final wish fulfilled, but I feel hinky that the audience maybe didn't know. That is a decision people should be able to make for themselves, because this is a painful and tender subject. Signed, the person who wrote the human remains storage and display policy when I was a student.)
posted by kalimac at 7:44 PM on September 8, 2019 [9 favorites]

I sorta looked into this a long time ago. I want to make a Gibson-esque ghost. An electronic autobiography or journal as it were. That listens and talks and show picture and answers questions. All stuffed inside my skull. I'd also like to make it simple enough and robust enough that just maybe in 10,000 years some white-bearded Irving Finkle (or aliens) would titter with glee over this marvelous bit of ancient history.

Sadly it seems I'll have to settle for just maybe and stuff something into that plastic halloween skull that sits staring at me all the time.

It's probably going to end up being more like a bootable USB drive and someone is going to have to keep transcribing it to new technology like medieval monks. Sigh.
posted by zengargoyle at 2:10 AM on September 9, 2019 [2 favorites]

Man I would love to be able to be taxidermied and displayed in someone's living room. But alas, my dreams will never come true and I shall haunt the earth until my final wishes can be fulfilled.
posted by LizBoBiz at 3:41 AM on September 10, 2019

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