There has been a recent trend of reality television shows centered upon the buying and selling of interesting antiques/tchotchkes/valuables. Take American Pickers, Storage Wars, Pawn Stars, or any of the Pawn Stars spinoffs. One of these shows, Oddities, solely focuses on the strange, odd, and macabre. As a result, the antique dealers of Oddities are often buying (or trying to buy) human remains such as skulls, teeth, or shrunken heads.
Initially I assumed that there must be extensive paperwork involved in the buying and selling of skeletal remains. Yet, the flippant attitudes of the dealers towards former human beings convinced me otherwise. It really seemed as though they viewed the purchase of a human skull as no different from any other “antique.” A little research demonstrated that, from a legal standpoint, this is the case. The website Skulls Unlimited sells real human skulls for around 1,600 dollars. In bold print they state:
No products, real or replica offered by Skulls Unlimited require paperwork of any kind, as long as they are shipped to an American address. These fees apply only to shipments leaving the United States.
The Bone Room, another website where one can purchase skeletal remains, sums up the legal status of buying, selling and owning human remains. They write: “In short, there is no law at the U.S. Federal level prohibiting you from having a human bone in your possession [...] Three US states, New York, Georgia & Tennessee, all have independent State Laws prohibiting the import or export of human remains across their state lines.” It is important to note that the federal law “Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act” (NAGPRA) prevents the purchase and sale of grave goods and bones from native sites. Despite Skulls Unlimited‘s “no paperwork” policy, they write an exhaustive list of who can purchase bones:
Due to stringent regulations, these specimens are only available to medical or educational academic institutions such as college professors, teachers, doctors, nurses, dentists, physical therapists, occupational therapists, respiratory therapists, dental assistants, optometrists, x-ray technicians, ultrasound technicians, crime scene investigators, lawyers, and students of these professions. People in similar fields may inquire to their eligibility in purchasing these.
The wide range of people eligible to purchase skulls from Skulls Unlimited, as well as the possibility for inquiry, make it seem as though the website wants to make it as easy as possible to purchase a skeleton. The aforementioned “regulations” seem to be either very obscure, or completely made up. These regulations are likely very common laws which make actions like disinterment and grave robbing felonies. In addition, many state laws broadly penalize necrophilia and other such abuses of human remains. Yet, many of these laws specifically refer to the removal of the corpse from a graveyard. Presumably Skulls Unlimited and other such websites acquired the skeletal material legally. Therefore it seems as though only the necrophilia laws can apply to the customer. Is necrophilia such a huge risk that these sites feel the need to protect themselves?
eBay‘s policy towards human bones is clearly stated: “We don’t allow humans, the human body, or any human body parts or products to be listed on eBay, with two exceptions. Sellers can list items containing human scalp hair, and skulls and skeletons intended for medical use.” As a result, many sellers specify countless variations of “ONLY FOR MEDICAL USE.” eBay‘s sellers seem to be merely paying lip service to this policy. It does not specify that sellers have to make sure that the buyer is using the skeletal material in an academic way. Much like Skulls Unlimited, eBay has written a formality into their policy solely to protect its reputation. Another site, The Bone Room, completely eschews the idea that skeletal material is only for study. They write: “ Medical professionals purchase them as demonstration or research specimens. Artists incorporate them into their work. The human skull is a true marvel of nature, functional and beautiful in all its aspects.”
There is no shortage of websites where one can buy a human skull or other skeletal elements. So where do these bones come from? One source, prior to 2008, was China. The Beijing Olympics put pressure on the Chinese to put restrictions on their policies towards the exportation of human remains. Before that, China had been the largest source for human bones. Chinese osteological material is still a major portion of the bone market today. From a moral standpoint, this is problematic. In the past, China had exported bodies the government had “tortured and executed.” The Chinese cadaver market came to the attention of America in 2008 when a 20/20 report questioned the provenance of the corpses from Bodies. The report led to a congressional inquiry which resulted in the resignation of the Bodies CEO. In light of the Bodies controversy, The Bone Room‘s Chinese supply, while legally obtained, is subject to the same ethical questions as the Bodies exhibit. It is very possible that this company is profiting off China’s disregard for the bodies of its prisoners. It is important to note that Skulls Unlimited states that “all natural bone specimens are legally and ethically obtained.”
There are legitimate reasons to own real human skeletal material. Fields of scholarship such as forensic anthropology and archaeology benefit from the study of genuine human bone. Some religions even claim to need real skeletal material for their practices. Any law on this subject is inherently difficult to create because of the number of skulls/skeletons already in private collections. That being said, some regulation does not seem to be unrealistic. Selling artifacts in many countries and through many auction houses often involves demonstrating a provenience (a record of ownership/origin of the object) for many years in order to discourage looting of ancient sites. Why buying a human skull on the internet should require less paperwork than almost any artifact is beyond me.
Ultimately the laws will not stop those wanting to own real skeletal material. I understand the primal awe that human bones inspire and the subsequent desire for ownership. Yet, these bones deserve a degree of respect. They were, above all else, people. Personally, I would have no problem donating my skeleton to a university. Yet, I would not want to be exhibited in the ghastly Bodies or stuck in the Limp Bizkit guitarist’s cabinet of curiosity to be gawked at on the show Oddities. Unfortunately we cannot assume what the dead would want. Yet, we still owe them our respect. A skull is not an antique, it is all that remains of a life.