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One skull too many.
January 18, 2009 7:23 PM   Subscribe

IWishIWereKiddingFilter: How do we get rid of a human medical skull we inherited?

omnigut's recent question about unloading a tiger head has reminded me that I have a similar dilemma that, hopefully, you guys can help me solve. A pretty icky, spooky dilemma.

In the nineteen sixties, my father (somehow) obtained a medical skull. It's a real human skull with the plates marked up. I think it has some sort of shellac on it. Being the hippie that he was, he glued a scarab to its forehead and named it Percy. He and his (hippie) friends invented a holiday around Percy called Percymas where they exchanged handmade and recycled junk with one another. Yes, I know, they were pretty weird.

My father died when I was eight and the skull has been passed around between his friends since then. People didn't want to get rid of it for sentimental reasons, but didn't really want it, either. Because, you know, human skulls are kind of creepy. Honestly, I think it's pretty creepy, too. Somehow, at the last celebrated Percymas, Mr. WanKenobi was given Percy to "hold on to." He doesn't really want it (it definitely holds no sentimental value for him!). My mother and my sister don't want it. I certainly don't want it, but Mr. WanKenobi is moving in with me soon, and since he'll be moving across state lines to do so we should probably get rid of it sooner rather than later.

But we can't really figure out what to do with it. We don't want to do anything illegal or of dubious legality since these are human remains we're talking about. Since this question was asked, you can no longer sell human remains on Ebay. Since there's a scarab glued to the forehead, I'm not sure that a med student would want it, but maybe I'm wrong. In case it's relevant, Mr. WanKenobi is in New Jersey. Any ideas as to where we can donate it? People we can sell it to? Any ideas as to how we can . . . erm, dispose of these human remains?
posted by PhoBWanKenobi to Grab Bag (52 answers total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
 
How much do you want for it?
posted by Optimus Chyme at 7:26 PM on January 18, 2009 [6 favorites]


Donate it to a community theater prop dept.
posted by Theloupgarou at 7:26 PM on January 18, 2009


What's the shipping cost for a skull these days?
posted by Alvy Ampersand at 7:28 PM on January 18, 2009 [1 favorite]


...Since the people who really may care something about it only gave it to you to "hold on to," it strikes me that you are well within your rights to contact them and say, "I'm moving across country, so you all probably want this back now. Thanks, see ya."

And then you give it to the people who celebrated Percymas and make it THEIR problem. Granted, it may still be a problem, but at least it is a problem being handled by people who gave a shit about the situation, rather than a problem being handled by someone who had no connection to the situation.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:31 PM on January 18, 2009


OMG, if Optimus Chyme didn't beat me to it, I'd offer to buy it myself. I would SERIOUSLY give it to my boyfriend for Valentine's Day.
posted by scody at 7:32 PM on January 18, 2009


(on non-preview: but yeah, the real thing to do, as EC says, is to give it back to one of the former Percymas celebrators, simply by saying "we can't hold on to this any longer, thanks.")
posted by scody at 7:33 PM on January 18, 2009


I guess I should have noted that since I don't really want this ask question to turn into craigslist:skullsville, I'd prefer generally suggestions rather than offers to buy.

Besides, don't you guys know that years from now you're just going to be saddling your descendants with cheesily decorated human remains?!
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 7:34 PM on January 18, 2009 [3 favorites]


(on non-preview: but yeah, the real thing to do, as EC says, is to give it back to one of the former Percymas celebrators, simply by saying "we can't hold on to this any longer, thanks.")

We've tried. The ones who unloaded it on Mr. WanKenobi are moving out of New Jersey and don't want it. The only other surviving original Percymas participant is very reclusive and is, quite literally, impossible to get a hold of.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 7:36 PM on January 18, 2009


Besides, don't you guys know that years from now you're just going to be saddling your descendants with cheesily decorated human remains?!

I would restore it as best I could and display it respectfully. The Wine of Life keeps oozing drop by drop, the Leaves of Life keeps falling one by one.
posted by Optimus Chyme at 7:37 PM on January 18, 2009


I don't think anybody will want such a skull as a donation. Medical schools etc. generally have enough access to specimens and prepare their own, not to mention the scarab. If you simply want to dispose of it, you should ask a funeral home owner for the right procedure applicable in your state.
posted by Brennus at 7:39 PM on January 18, 2009


In that case, I'd say a community theater or improv group -- you know, for all the "alas, poor Yorick (he had a scarab in his forehead)" moments that arise.
posted by scody at 7:40 PM on January 18, 2009 [4 favorites]


Keep it and use it as an extremely authentic Halloween decoration?
posted by Grlnxtdr at 7:43 PM on January 18, 2009


I would bury it in a nearby playground. Keep an eye on the news.
posted by megatherium at 7:45 PM on January 18, 2009 [45 favorites]


Would you want your defleshed head being passed around and played with? Have it creamated. That was somebody's head.
posted by cashman at 7:48 PM on January 18, 2009 [4 favorites]


I used to visit a small college's archeology lab and I remember seeing a shellacked skull on a storage shelf. I wonder if some small college (or community college or high school) might have an archeology, anthropology, medical illustration, or some other type of program that could put Percy to use. My logic is that if they're small, possibly under-funded, and not a medical school, they might be willing to take it as a donation. I don't actually have experience donating or accepting old skulls, however, so I could be completely wrong.
posted by Meg_Murry at 7:51 PM on January 18, 2009 [1 favorite]


I would love to have my defleshed head passed around and played with. I think the theater idea sounds great. Or, failing that, would you still find it creepy if it was packed away in a box somewhere? Why not just file it away in a closet for a few years?
posted by equalpants at 7:57 PM on January 18, 2009


Keep in mind that it is illegal to possess human remains. You might want to give it back to the people that gave it to you to hold and let them deal with it...

but, get rid of it...
posted by HuronBob at 8:00 PM on January 18, 2009 [1 favorite]


Contact these people and ask what their opinion is.
posted by oflinkey at 8:01 PM on January 18, 2009


Okay, well if it's going to be kept, I say dangle it from your rear view mirror. Or mount it on a scepter. Or mount it on a rocking chair.
posted by cashman at 8:03 PM on January 18, 2009


Check out natural earth burials in the New Jersey area. Should be inexpensive. An Australian radio program called Background Briefing recently broadcast an interesting episode about this.
posted by ads at 8:10 PM on January 18, 2009


Both the community college and 4-year college I previously attended had anatomy and physiology classes supplied with human bones. Several decades ago, the community college had a good relationship with a famous research/teaching hospital. And because of this, they had a lot of human skulls, assorted bones, a couple of full skeletons, fetuses (fetii?) in jars, and whatnot. The 4-year college had a fake skeleton and a (supposedly) real human cadaver, but that was pretty much all they had.

If this is your kind of thing, you might want to call up the biology department of a college and ask if they'd like it. Some anatomy professor might jump at the opportunity, especially in these underfunded days.

I wouldn't donate it to a theatre group for Macbeth. Depending on how good the theatre group is, some giggly amateur thespian is going to drop it and break it at some point. The colleges I went to were very strict about how the bones were to be treated - they gave us the whole talk about how the bones were someone's mother, father, child at some point. And that the bones were hard to come by, and that there'd be hell to pay if you broke it. But at the same time, some giggly freshman ... it's up to you, really.

Also, the bones are usually obtained from those who have given their consent. (Though there's always some exceptions...)

You might be interested in the book Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach. It's a really good read, and it might help you decide what to do with the skull - whether to keep it, donate it, or whatnot. Good luck!
posted by Xere at 8:12 PM on January 18, 2009 [1 favorite]


Would you want your defleshed head being passed around and played with? Have it creamated. That was somebody's head.

Cashman, the post says that it was a medical skull, which means that the initial owner willingly donated it to be "played with", in a sense. It's gone to a somewhat unorthodox place, I'll grant, but the original owner probably knew and felt comfortable with the fact that some shenanigans would be gotten to. It's not like this was something someone dug up.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:13 PM on January 18, 2009


HuronBob, according to this website, possession of human remains isn't illegal. I've looked up the relevant New Jersey state law, but that seems to be referring to desecration of graves (including damaging or destroying the remains). I'll contact skullsunlimited and see if they can help, oflinkey, thanks for the link.

Or, failing that, would you still find it creepy if it was packed away in a box somewhere? Why not just file it away in a closet for a few years?

The last Percymas was several years ago. This is something that keeps getting put off, but I think the bottom line is that no one wants it sitting in a box in their house somewhere.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 8:14 PM on January 18, 2009


Metafilter: That was somebody's head.

Also, other neat things you could do to it:

1. Cut a hole in the base, insert light bulb

2. Cover it in glitter

3. Use it as the world's best hat holder

4. Skulls with scarabs on them sound like they'd go down a treat at a Stargate convention

5. Use it for its intended purpose and become the greatest expert on skulls in your social group.
posted by turgid dahlia at 8:17 PM on January 18, 2009 [1 favorite]


We've tried. The ones who unloaded it on Mr. WanKenobi are moving out of New Jersey and don't want it. The only other surviving original Percymas participant is very reclusive and is, quite literally, impossible to get a hold of.

Right, then -- I've got a question that on the face of it will seem callous, but it's designed to help, I swear.

...What exactly is stopping you from just putting it out in the trash?

If the idea of just throwing a body part out like garbage is creepy, then maybe giving it a decent burial is the way to go. For that, contact the town morgue and see what they'd say.

If you think some school could use it for research purposes if they could somehow get the scarab off, call a couple smaller schools in your area. Even high schools. Warn them that there's the scarab on the forehead first, and maybe they can figure out what to do about that.

If you have any kind of lingering "but this used to belong to Dad" feeling towards it, I'd suggest going back to the Percymas who said "I don't want it" and saying "look, I know, but we don't either, and we're MOVING OUT OF TOWN, we really don't have the time to figure out what to do about this." Or...just taking it.

One more practical idea -- there's a place in New York City, in Soho, that buys and sells bones from animals of all species. Maybe you could call them and see if they want to have a look at it and see if they have any ideas/want to buy it/something.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:21 PM on January 18, 2009


I'm guessing that there are procedures in place for these sorts of things. Regardless of age, we are talking about human remains here. Contact somebody at a natural history museum or within the anthropology department of you closest university and ask what to do with it.

Failing that, you could probably give it to the police (beats them finding a skull in the trash with your fingerprints on it!). I can't imagine that a funeral home is going to dispose of it without notifying authorities anyway or, more importantly, without charging you for it's disposal.
posted by kisch mokusch at 8:28 PM on January 18, 2009 [1 favorite]


I like megatherium's idea.

Really though, why not just toss it in the woods somewhere? You'd give whoever found it a pretty great story to tell people. I would have loved to have found something cool like a human skull in the woods when I was a kid!
posted by orme at 8:31 PM on January 18, 2009


My college art professor was in possession of two human skulls that had been donated for some reason or another and ended up in our department. They were considered very valuable and we treated them with the utmost respect. We spent at least a month and a half doing study drawings from the skulls and it was one of the most valuable exercises I ever had in class. It's hard to understand how to draw the human face until you understand the frame it is built on.

So, my advice is, see if any local art departments would take it. They would probably find a way to solvent the scarab off...or incorporate it.
posted by bristolcat at 8:33 PM on January 18, 2009


A theatre company, professional or amateur, would probably love it. In a professional company with a dedicated props department, it would be less likely for a "giggly thespian" to be messing around with it. (Thanks, Xere. And that's Hamlet, not Macbeth.)

And not just Hamlet, either-- the skull could sit on the desk in Doctor Faustus's study, be soliloquised to by Vindice in The Revengers' Tragedy, and generally hang out in any scene taking place in the home of an apothecary, scholar or doctor. Or sorcerer. Or skull-toting villain. See also this guy who bequeathed his skull to the RSC.
posted by Pallas Athena at 8:50 PM on January 18, 2009


I see more use in an art department than in a theater department. It can be used for still lifes in all different configurations.
posted by Vaike at 9:02 PM on January 18, 2009


backing up the art department suggestion. Skulls are essential reference and drawing from human bones is a foundation of basic drawing of the human form. University, community college, or high school art departments are all possibilities.

Any anthropologists at a museum nearby? Forensic facial reconstruction course being taught at a college maybe? Heck you might even get to learn something about his age and race.

Percymas sounds lovely! No chance of resurrecting (cough) the tradition hm? I don't suppose Percy needs to be physically present if one did want to celebrate it. After all, he's sort of inside all of us.

Wherever he does go, his story ought to follow him. The least he deserves is to retain his colorful history.
posted by Lou Stuells at 9:03 PM on January 18, 2009


If it creeps you out that anyone would have it, bury it. If not, send it to one of the MeFites who just offered to give it a good home.
posted by desuetude at 9:06 PM on January 18, 2009


These are not cheap to get if you want to purchase one. You should donate it to either the anatomy department or art department at a college or university. The scarab could probably come off with some sort of solvent without hurting the bone too much. Even a slightly imperfect skull is more useful than no skull at all. Whatever you do, don't trash it: it's valuable.
posted by demiurge at 9:28 PM on January 18, 2009


Thanks everyone for the helpful and hilarious advice. I've contacted the chair of the anthropology department at my alma mater. If I don't hear back from him (or he's just not that into it) I'll proceed to contact the art department.

Sorting through the answers has helped me realize that I'd prefer to donate Percy somewhere where she (my father always insisted it was a female) will be put to good use or, if it comes to that, give her a proper burial. It just seems more, I dunno, respectful. Which is a bit of a surprise for me because I'm agnostic and don't consider myself particularly superstitious, but there you go. I'll be pursuing those sorts of things instead of selling it (sorry Optimus Chyme and scody). This also puts the tossing it out of the question. Plus, what kisch mokusch said about fingerprints.

Percymas sounds lovely! No chance of resurrecting (cough) the tradition hm? I don't suppose Percy needs to be physically present if one did want to celebrate it. After all, he's sort of inside all of u

And thanks, Lou. I've actually always dug the holiday as a family tradition, even if I wasn't into the using-a-human-skull-as-a-mascot aspect. In the event that you ever want to celebrate Percymas yourself, here are the details: it's held the Saturday before Thanksgiving and meant to be a non consumer and non denominational alternative to the holidays. Gifts should be junky and preferably recycled and you're obligated to keep them for one year past Percymas. I've heard (coughcough) that copious amounts of marijuana should be consumed.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 9:30 PM on January 18, 2009 [6 favorites]


They said it was a medical skull. Without documentation, who knows?
posted by aeschenkarnos at 10:21 PM on January 18, 2009 [1 favorite]


Keep in mind that it is illegal to possess human remains. You might want to give it back to the people that gave it to you to hold and let them deal with it...

No, that's not accurate. I bought one a few years ago, and it's perfectly legal. It's sitting on my desk in my office.
posted by bradth27 at 10:29 PM on January 18, 2009


Wherever he does go, his story ought to follow him. The least he deserves is to retain his colorful history.

This. You should write what you know of her history on a label and affix it somewhere inside the skull. Leave some empty space so that the next person to pass her on (if they do) can add their part of the story as well. I always try to leave some such biographical note in books that leave my possession, because it's so frustrating to find one that has an obvious but unknowable history.
posted by lostburner at 10:32 PM on January 18, 2009


Incidentally, PhoBWan, if nothing pans out with the anthro departments or the art departments or Skulls Unlimited etc. etc., it seems to be in the spirit of Percymas to recycle it as a gift (to Optimus or scody). If you do bury it, I would alert the local authorities. Fingerprints, human remains, etc.
posted by oflinkey at 10:35 PM on January 18, 2009


Oh, clarifying. Gift rather than sell to aforementioned MeFites. Removes some skeevy factor for you.
posted by desuetude at 11:43 PM on January 18, 2009


sorry about my misinformation about the legality... my googling was evidently broke at the time..... but, really, I did try to check that.
posted by HuronBob at 4:57 AM on January 19, 2009


They said it was a medical skull. Without documentation, who knows?

The OP said that it has "the plates marked up." In other words, all of the different bones in the skull are labeled. To me, this says "medical teaching tool".
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 6:40 AM on January 19, 2009


Would you want your defleshed head being passed around and played with?

I am now considering putting precisely this in my will.
posted by odinsdream at 7:00 AM on January 19, 2009 [5 favorites]


I think donating it is definitely the way to go. I just foresee very bad things happening (or at the very least a lot of police time wasted) should you bury it somewhere or toss it in the garbage. I'm probably totally paranoid, but I can just imagine the poor rookie cop who finds this thing and thinks he has a voodoo killer on his hands or something.
posted by whoaali at 7:24 AM on January 19, 2009 [1 favorite]


I am sorry that I will not be the recipient, but thank you for putting it to good use by donating it and not just letting it sit sadly in a box in the attic. If you have any other human remains lying around in the future, feel free to email me. :)
posted by Optimus Chyme at 7:27 AM on January 19, 2009 [1 favorite]


Relating to my own replies through metafilter, perhaps hang it in the bathroom to scare the piss out of people?
posted by omnigut at 7:27 AM on January 19, 2009


Hood ornament.
posted by box at 8:06 AM on January 19, 2009


PhoBWanKenobiPoster: "Besides, don't you guys know that years from now you're just going to be saddling your descendants with cheesily decorated human remains?!"

You say that like it's a bad thing.
posted by The corpse in the library at 9:23 AM on January 19, 2009 [1 favorite]


I'm wondering (and I'm probably too late to the thread to get any replies to my shameless thread-jacking) - if Percy were dumped in the woods and then found, would it lead to a police investigation? S/he could be a potential crime victim, no?

Incidentally, my grandfather (who was a doctor) had a Percy, I mean medical skull, too, and it never occurred to us to be particularly reverential to it, or creeped out by it. I had it in my bedroom as a kid and it didn't bother me one bit.
posted by ClarissaWAM at 10:02 AM on January 19, 2009


PS And I have no idea what happened to it when they moved into the retirement home, but I wouldn't be all that surprised if it was unceremoniously dumped in the trash.
posted by ClarissaWAM at 10:03 AM on January 19, 2009


Cover it with diamonds and sell it for $100,000,000.
posted by neuron at 7:09 PM on January 19, 2009


The OP said that it has "the plates marked up." In other words, all of the different bones in the skull are labeled. To me, this says "medical teaching tool".

Cool, what a great new body disposal idea ...
posted by aeschenkarnos at 7:48 PM on January 19, 2009


These things are problematic. Are you 100% sure it is a human skull and not just some sort of synthetic? If really human and without any real pedigree (i.e, papers indicating ownership) the safest thing to do is call your local police station and say you need to dispose of a human skull that is likely a *medical* skull. They will likely pick it up and bring it to their nearest medical examiners office for a quick exam to rule out anything nefarious. It can then be disposed of by the local municipality.

Sadly, this is not an uncommon story and the skull turns out to be a *trophy* skull from wartime (usually the Far East) We'd certainly not prefer to have one of our MIA's skulls sitting on a Vietnamese fireplace mantel with a candle in it. Suffice it to say, there may be a small chance that your skull has a family that might still be hoping to find him/her. Go through the authorities.
posted by teg4rvn at 1:29 PM on January 20, 2009 [1 favorite]


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