Can I Get In Trouble Regarding My Donation of a Human Skull?
February 4, 2009 11:32 AM   Subscribe

SkullCourierFilter- My fiancee's family had a human skull that her father had somehow procured. I donated it to our school and they said they may have to report it to the police. Do I have anything to worry about?

The skull is clearly some sort of archaeological artifact. It is varnished and had some partially erased writing on the top of it detailing where (we believe) it was dug up, and by whom it was dug up. My fiancee's father (the original possessor of the skull) who passed away quite a while ago, left it with some friends who were moving. They passed it back to to my fiancee's family, who were creeped out by the prospect of having a human skull in their home, so I agreed to be its caretaker.

My fiancee called up the anthropology department at my university, and they agreed to accept it as a donation. They said they believed they might have to report it to the police, and I told them that was fine and I left my information in case I needed to be contacted.

My feeling is that since I haven't done anything wrong (and certainly haven't killed anyone and kept their skull!), I don't have anything to fear from the law. Am I wrong in believing that?
posted by Modus Pwnens to Law & Government (12 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Did you see this thread about Percy?
posted by meerkatty at 11:36 AM on February 4, 2009

Best answer: I am a lawyer, but I am not your lawyer. You're not wrong. What would they charge you with? And why would they bother? I've never heard of any statute saying it's illegal to hold human remains (which would complicate things for people with urns of cremated ashes, I would think), and that's all you've done. If there is such a statute, you'd be in trouble. But other than that, no, the cops can't arrest you for doing nothing illegal.
posted by kingjoeshmoe at 11:39 AM on February 4, 2009

Haha, hi guys. It is Percy. And here I thought that the whole thing had worked out fine.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 11:40 AM on February 4, 2009 [1 favorite]

PhoBWanKenobi is Modus Pwnens' fiancee. So I'm pretty certain this skull is Percy. If it's a second human skull they've had to deal with this month, then that would be odd.
posted by yeti at 11:42 AM on February 4, 2009 [3 favorites]

Best answer: I have to differ with kingjoshmoe and say that there ARE laws against doing all kinds of things to human remains that will vary by state. You also risk (and this is always a risk when the police are involved) dealing with a cop who's easily offended or confused.

Here's a cut-and-paste from 2C:22-1 of the New Jersey Code of Criminal Justice (note: I have no idea whether this is the only law on this point or whether it's even in force; I know as much about U.S. law as your average Hungarian dental hygienist):

1. a. A person commits a crime of the second degree if he:

(1)Unlawfully disturbs, moves or conceals human remains;

(2)Unlawfully desecrates, damages or destroys human remains; or

(3)Commits an act of sexual penetration or sexual contact, as defined in N.J.S.2C:14-1, upon human remains.

b.A person commits a crime of the third degree if he purposely or knowingly fails to dispose of human remains in a manner required by law.

c.As used in this act, "human remains" means the body of a deceased person or the dismembered part of a body of a living person but does not include cremated remains.

Have you disturbed it? Moved it? Concealed it? "Desecrated" it? I don't know and neither will anyone else here. Call a lawyer or legal clinic and get some real advice.
posted by hayvac at 12:16 PM on February 4, 2009

As you've described it, you have not disturbed, moved, concealed, or desecrated anything. The skull came to you, not the other way around. The university is just covering its ass by checking with the police. There is nothing to charge you with.
posted by *s at 12:43 PM on February 4, 2009

Response by poster: I examined the previous Percy thread, but hoped to explore the legal issues more in depth in this one. If it was another human skull besides Percy, it would have been highly improbable, but not impossible! :)

I didn't do anything but move it, and I wouldn't say that I "unlawfully" did, as I moved it from my fiancee's living room to my closet. Even if there was some sort of technical legal breach, I suspect it would most likely not be considered to be worth their time at the police department.
posted by Modus Pwnens at 12:43 PM on February 4, 2009

Even if there was some sort of technical legal breach, I suspect it would most likely not be considered to be worth their time at the police department.

My point is only that it's wrong to say there are no laws that might apply. Who knows if there's some case somewhere in which your state supreme court decided that just keeping a skull at home constituted "concealing" it? Or what if you happen to deal with a cop who decides that gluing a bauble to its forehead is "desecration"?

If you want to rely on the goodwill and common sense of your local PD -- well, it's not like that's an irrational position. Just cross your fingers and hope it's dealt with by someone reasonable.
posted by hayvac at 12:55 PM on February 4, 2009

My marginally informed contribution to this thread is that I once read a paper about dating human remains using Po-210. Apparently, the law in the UK states (or stated, when the paper was written), that any found human remains younger than 80 years are to be investigated in connection with unsolved crimes. If your skull has been hanging around as a curio for some time, it can probably be easily dated with an appropriate forensic method, so I would guess you are in for some police-type bureaucratic hassle but not much more.
posted by ghost of a past number at 1:39 PM on February 4, 2009

Any encounter with police is reason for concern.
Your guilt, or fault, if any, is totally irrelevant.
posted by spasm at 1:46 PM on February 4, 2009

Who knows if there's some case somewhere in which your state supreme court decided that just keeping a skull at home constituted "concealing" it?

Note that the statute doesn't proscribe concealing human remains. It speaks to "unlawfully . . . concealing".

The reason they have to check with the police is because, if they didn't, they would be an awfully convenient means of disposing of bodies.

Don't be overly frightened by hayvac's post -- but check with a lawyer anyway.
posted by toomuchpete at 2:31 PM on February 4, 2009

You are doing the right thing by donating the skull to the school. I think the worst thing that might happen is that the police will write up a report to document the situation. I am not a lawyer, though, however, I am a museum person with some experience dealing with human remains and funerary items dug up in early-mid 20th century digs.

There are a lot of new rules and laws, including the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act that make having human remains a lot more complicated than it used to be. If the information written on the skull can help track it down to an archeological dig site that is connected to a Native American tribe, then the skull needs to be repatriated back to the tribe.
posted by pluckysparrow at 3:49 PM on February 4, 2009

« Older Caputuring HDV from a mini-DV cassette: what are...   |   Cat floor soap? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.