September 20, 2011

Bones for Sale in the Valley of the Sun

Presumably in an attempt to capitalize on the proximity of Halloween, two different denizens of Phoenix, AZ, are selling human remains on craigslist this week.

A man named Mike Hale posted a skull for sale a few days ago.  He claims to have acquired it from a yard sale, but police, upon seeing the story profiled on local ABC 15, seized the skull.  Hale for some reason thought the skull was from a teenager, but the video below clearly shows the skull was that of an adult, probably an older female.


As the video says, it's not illegal to own human remains if they were acquired properly, such as through a company that sells medical skeletons.  These random skulls pop up quite often - I found one on the Raleigh craigslist several years ago - particularly since the Baby Boomer generation is now retiring from medical practice.  Back in the day, many new med students were required to purchase their own human skull.  My friend's father has one in his office, and I once got to impress a group of people by estimating its age, sex, and ancestry at a party.  (Yes, I am *that* fun at parties.)  It's odd that the Phoenix police felt the need to seize this skull, but I suppose without any additional provenience from the buyer or the seller, they thought it best to make sure it wasn't a missing person.  The craigslist post has been taken down, perhaps to be relisted when the skull is returned to Hale.  $300 is not entirely unreasonable to ask, although with the lack of teeth, I'd expect it to fetch a bit less.

Oddly, another story came out of Phoenix about a woman who is asking thousands of dollars for a full skeleton, complete with pseudo-coffin:



Cindy Chamberlain seems to have inherited "Lucy" from a family member who was in the Freemasons.  She wants to see the skeleton go to a good, local home, and thinks that if someone wants to display Lucy for Halloween, that would be great.  Interestingly, when the reporters contacted the Freemasons about the skeleton, they were quickly rebuffed and told that the Freemasons were looking into it.  Doo doo doooooo, this is the stuff of good Halloween stories!

Chamberlain's listing is still up on craigslist, and the police haven't bothered her, presumably because she has good provenience - she claims a scientist has looked at the skeleton and that Lucy was a medical donation over 100 years ago.  So definitely not illegal to own the skeleton.  And at a few thousand for what seems like a good-quality medical skeleton, Lucy is a pretty good deal.

Medical skeletons are a bit problematic because the trade in bodies is not always the most ethical.  Most of our medical skeletons in this country come from India or China, places that are more populous and not as rich as the U.S.  Good-quality medical skeletons command thousands of dollars, maybe tens of thousands at this point, so it's not unusual to learn about unethical practices in search of a profit.

But the biggest problem I have with these two sales - and the problem with Mortimer, the restaurant mascot I blogged about a couple months ago - is that human remains are being sold and displayed as curiosities.  Chamberlain even encouraged the buyer to use Lucy as a decoration.  While it's not illegal to do these things, it's ethically questionable.  These were, after all, the remains of a living person.  These remains were donated for the purpose of training doctors and advancing science, not for the purpose of scaring snot-nosed kids out of their Snickers bars.

Bones are the most personal, most intimate part of a human, and as someone who works with osteological remains on a daily basis, I consider myself privileged to get to know these individuals from their skeletons and to be able to train tomorrow's doctors and anthropologists with the generous donation of their physical being.  Both Hale and Chamberlain should strongly consider donating these remains to Arizona State, which has a world-class anthropology department and experts in human osteology at the Center for Bioarchaeological Research.  If I lived in Phoenix and had a few thousand dollars to spare, I'd buy the skeletal remains and donate them myself.

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