Crudelius est quam mori semper timere mortem
April 30, 2009 9:56 PM   Subscribe

Say one wanted to have their skeleton preserved and mounted and left to your next of kin after death how would you do it? -rather gruesome details inside -

This is not actually theoretical. For a very long time, my mother has expressed a desire to be a mounted skeleton after her death - but only if her bones can be left in my care. I'm fine with this - I've seen her xrays and she's a really nifty pathological specimen - and I honestly have never had the "ew creepy" about human remains that most people seem to have.

So I have a few questions...
So, upon her death... what next?
What provisions does she need to have in her will for this?
How can I locate (preferably well before hand) a group who would be willing to handle the defleshing and preparation, as well mounting?
Where would have such facilities and be willing to accommodate this request?
Does anyone know of a lawyer, anywhere in the US who would be willing to consult on such a will?

I know you are not my lawyer, nor hers - and I know a lot of you are going to be really grossed out by this idea. But really.. I'd rather have her with me than in the ground somewhere - and so would she.
posted by strixus to Law & Government (19 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
This has come up before (well, the skull, anyhow).

You might also want to plan for what will happen after you're not around too, otherwise someone else might have to figure it out.
posted by nat at 10:03 PM on April 30, 2009

I know it's not exactly the same thing, but I would start by looking into what provisions people make, and what choices they are given, when they want to donate their bodies to medicine.

Worth noting, from this site (which was linked in this comment):

In short, there is no law at the U.S. Federal level prohibiting you from having a human bone in your possession. The fact that some people believe there is or believe there should be such a law is irrelevant.

This is not to say that such laws do not exist in other countries, or at the local level. For example, there is the exception of the states Georgia & Tennesee that both have independent State Laws prohibiting the import or export of human remains across their state lines.

I realize this is a sensitive topic. For what it's worth, I don't find this gross at all. I hope you two find a solution.
posted by juliplease at 10:07 PM on April 30, 2009

Response by poster: Thanks folks, already. Much faster than I was hoping to get some leads. That statute in GA is new to me, I'll have to find it in the code. I thought I knew most of the state laws here regarding remains and such.

And yes, I have thought about what happens when I'm not around - She, along with myself, will probably go to a university.
posted by strixus at 10:17 PM on April 30, 2009

Response by poster: Oh of COURSE Skulls Unlimited would be the ones to talk to! I've been a customer of theirs for ... longer than I care to admit.

Thanks nat!

I'll give them a call soon.
posted by strixus at 10:19 PM on April 30, 2009

I just saw a documentary on a heavily tattooed man in Australia who wanted to donate his skin to an art museum after he died. The law there was that he could do what he wanted with his body, so he told his doctor about it and contacted a taxidermist in the area (who was willing but a bit perplexed) and set it all up in his will.
I think a taxidermist would be a good option for you too, or at least might know of other people who could help you with this.
posted by rmless at 10:19 PM on April 30, 2009

I think if I had this problem to solve I would try contacting somebody at my local medical school. Somebody who teaches dissection would probably have the necessary contacts - or possibly expertise to do the job themselves..
posted by rongorongo at 1:41 AM on May 1, 2009

I worked for a short period at a med school morgue, where people donated their bodies to science. The remains were returned to loved ones in the form of ashes - not whole bones, but they may be able to accommodate a special request. There were a lot of strange requests that came through the office, so I don't think you have much to lose by just calling.

I recall there were US companies that cleaned and prepared skeletons for study. You could ask the university for credible references. Avoid the medical specimen/ body donation companies that are privately owned or unaffiliated with a university. I've heard (maybe dubious) tales of a black market.

Ask your mom to make the calls. Doing this for someone else will raise more red flags.

Apparently Calcutta is the epicenter of the medical skeleton trade.
posted by degrees_of_freedom at 5:04 AM on May 1, 2009

Generally speaking if a body is prepared for dissection, it goes through a preservation process which makes the bones unsuitable for display after. The bodies donated for skeletons and those for dissections do not overlap.

If there is a forensic pathology university department in your area, particularly one with a forensic archaeologist, I would contact them. They will have the means for removing flesh from bone, though they may not be able to provide you that service.
posted by methylsalicylate at 5:29 AM on May 1, 2009 [1 favorite]

I went to visit my great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather recently. It was a great thing to be able to do, despite some of his recent difficulties.

He actually left his body to a friend ('taking the piss' is a family tradition), asking only that his head be preserved. Unfortunately no-one really knew what to do with his body, and the experimental preservation technique tried on his head didnt work so, instead, I have a rather fabulous family heirloom.

I'm not sure how I would feel about it if he were removed from his natural environment, if you know what I mean. I wouldnt really want Mr.B sitting in the corner of my living room and I know it wouldnt be what he would have wanted. He seems to work quite well where he is at the moment; not only is he his own memorial, but he continues to provoke debate and study. I believe he also plays an active role in mediating the affairs of the college.

You dont say what your motivation for preserving your mother would be. Be aware that pure sentimentalism is nowhere near as durable as the human frame. Long after your affection had worn bare, the skeleton would remain; cast adrift into an unsympathetic world. Finding a use, or a function for her remains would ensure that she remained valued or admired.

I look forward to hearing how you proceed.
posted by BadMiker at 6:07 AM on May 1, 2009 [4 favorites]

a. Ask ColdChef.

b. There was a Mary Roach article in the New Yorker about a place where cadavers are used to test how bodies decompose, for forensic purposes. It was also in her book, Stiff. Recommended reading. Maybe Mom could decompose, providing useful research data, and you could then have her skeleton.

c. It may be illegal to dispose of human remains in an unorthodox manner, especially just following death, as opposed to later. Disposing of humans in an unorthodox manner prior to death is problematic. Ask Scarabic. In addition to knowing if it's legal for you to own them, you must plan for what happens to her bones when you die.
posted by theora55 at 6:35 AM on May 1, 2009

You might be interested in the story of Grover Krantz.
posted by gudrun at 6:47 AM on May 1, 2009 [1 favorite]

Gudrun, thanks for posting the link to Grover Krantz, I love that story.
posted by BoscosMom at 7:46 AM on May 1, 2009

It might be hard to get this done, even if it's in accordance with your mother's wishes (see this link here from an above-linked ask). Also, keep in mind that while not illegal per se, owning human remains that are not ashes are of dubious legality in many jurisdictions; though it all worked out in the end, when my fiance donated Percy the scarab-bedazzled skull to a university, they vaguely warned him that they would have to contact the police, because even they weren't sure if our trade-off was totally legal.

That being said, please, please take care of the remains (your mom's, not yours, but those too, I guess) before you die. Getting rid of a skull was frustrating enough. I can't imagine dealing with a whole skeleton, and one that I was related to, to boot.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 7:49 AM on May 1, 2009

Oh and you say this: "This is not actually theoretical. For a very long time, my mother has expressed a desire to be a mounted skeleton after her death - but only if her bones can be left in my care" (italics are mine). Are you sure that she'd be comfortable going to a university after your death? The stipulation that the bones be left in your care suggests to me that she wants to keep things in the family, so to speak.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 7:54 AM on May 1, 2009

Response by poster: We've talked about this for quite some time - yes, she is comfortable going to a UNV after my death. We're both academics, of a nature, and are pretty much accepting of the fact that our lives are dedicated to the University system. Our deaths probably will be too.

We both share a lot of hobbies and interests, particularly forensic pathology and anthropology, and I actually have had some training in the field and many friends who went on to do the work full time. I also know a few people who are in ColdChef's profession. I've asked some of them, but many are as lost as I seem to be - they have some thoughts, but don't know anyone who has done this.

Grover Krantz's story is VERY helpful, and I hadn't heard of this one. I know of at least one other case of this, a forensic anthro prof who is still in his department well after his death. These stories are useful to help track down the process. Thanks!

I'm aware of many of the legal problems with this - trust me. I know several people who privately own skeletons, and I've been interested in the legal issues surrounding unusual burial practices for many years. I've also helped do research and file keeping for university skeletal collections - the task is daunting. Part of the reason I've asked this is so I can get other input. I've thought quite a bit about who we may need to contact, and make contracts with, but getting the input of others is invaluable.

I know about the Body Farm - in fact I've visited there and know some people who have done research there. I've thought of contacting them, but haven't yet.

There are legal presidents that human remains are the property of the next of kin, via quasi-property common law. Organs are not, but preserved remains are - cremains and skeletal - at least in most jurisdictions in the US.

BadMiker, Bentham's story is actually one of her inspirations. That's seriously cool that you're related to him.

In all honesty, the motivations are two fold - one, my mother and I both despise traditional burial and cremation as being too industrialized. Two, she would very much like to be useful for a long time after her death, and being a skeletal mount is ideal to her. Remaining in my care simply comes from the fact that, through the years, she's shaped many of my interests in the "unusual" and often impractical, and I'd like to respect her wishes on this. I'm completely accepting of all of these things, and honestly, well, she's my mother, who had the quirk that I could keep any bones I found, but could never own a toy gun. I owe to her in a real sense that I'm not nearly as terrified of death and mortality as everyone else I know seems to be. I'd like to at least be able to say, somewhere down the line, to my children "Your grandmother didn't fear this. I don't. Neither should you. Now come help me dust her."

Thank you all. Keep the ideas coming!
posted by strixus at 1:28 PM on May 1, 2009 [1 favorite]

There are legal presidents that human remains are the property of the next of kin, via quasi-property common law. Organs are not, but preserved remains are - cremains and skeletal - at least in most jurisdictions in the US.

Check your state law. In New Jersey, it's specified that possession of cremated remains are fine, but the law makes no mention of preserved bones. Keep in mind that moving them over state lines can get iffy as well--as juliplease points out this might be especially the case in your state.

Whatever the motivations of you & your mother (which are fine--people should feel free to do with their remains whatever they wish), I'd just keep in mind that, despite your best intentions, your children might not have the same attitude that you do towards them. For the sake of making things easy on them, as well as ensuring that your wishes are followed, I'd arrange for the transfer of the bones to a specific department in a university well before you die--it's just so much easier for everyone involved if they know what the protocol is.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 1:53 PM on May 1, 2009

The guy at my school whose mother supposedly kept his dead father in the house undiscovered for months? That was creepy (also has a tinge of urban legend to it, but I digress). To me, this is no stranger than buying someone a plot, putting them in the ground, and going for a visit every once in a while. Sorry I am of no help with the question, but I wish you luck in finding the answer. Keep us posted.

PhoBWanKenobi makes a few excellent points, and Badmiker, your story is
posted by futureisunwritten at 2:41 PM on May 1, 2009

Awesome! I will be watching this thread closely, since I, like your mother, greatly want my skeleton to stick around after I die. I'm not sure if anyone in my family would have a particular inclination to keep my bones, but if they don't I'd be happy to have them be given to an anatomy professor or some other teacher or scientist with an interest in bones. I wouldn't even mind being parted out, I don't really care if my skeleton stays together.

I guess I got fascinated with this when I took an anatomy course at the community college several years ago. In our lab class we got to hold and examine a few real human bones, which were really, really cool. I'd love to be able to help other students learn.

Plus I think I will leave an awesome skeleton, and it just shouldn't go to waste. Bones are pretty nifty.
posted by marble at 4:04 PM on May 1, 2009

Keep in mind that Anthropology departments in museums that have Physical Anthropology skeletal collections love to get the skeletons of known individuals. If they get a skeleton with name, age, sex known, ethnic background known, and good medical history, this is extremely useful for teaching and research.
posted by gudrun at 10:03 PM on May 1, 2009

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