Donating/Keeping a human skull?
June 21, 2007 5:34 PM   Subscribe

My fiancee wants to keep his father's skull after he passes. How does one go about doing this?

My fiancee wants to keep his father's skull after he passes. How does one go about doing this?

From what I've been able to find, it is perfectly legal to keep a human skull... provided, of course, that you did not obtain the skull by dastardly and/or murderous means, I assume. Unfortunately, my googling skills must be off, as that's about all I can find. I've heard of people bequeathing their skulls to theater companies after their death (alas poor Yorick and all that), so there must be a proper, legal way to do it. (I found this post from last year, but it doesn't really address the donation/collection aspect of the equation.)

I spoke to a very friendly woman at the Bone Room, who suggested I speak to the people at Skulls Unlimited. She said that they're the only company in the U.S. who would process human remains in such a fashion. Unfortunately, unless I'm missing something big, the website made little to no mention of human skulls, and seems to deal primarily in animal bones.

So what's the process? What legal paperwork needs to be done before and after he dies? Who will extract and clean the skull for preservation? (And can my fiancee possibly have it bronzed if and when he obtains the skull? No, really.)

Here are the specifics:

- The guy doesn't have a will. I would think something like this would need to be explicitly stated, signed, notarized, etc., but as my fiancee is pretty much the sole living relative (I guess there are others but they're estranged), I'm not sure. Also, it seems like this could be an extremely lengthy process, and it doesn't look like he has that much time left.
- He lives in California. The skull would ultimately reside in Chicago. Assuming we could even get the skull, would there be any sort of issues in shipping/transporting it?
- He wants to donate his body to science after he passes. My fiancee has already started obtaining paperwork from the local university, but can you specifically state "everything but the skull," or maybe even have them extract the skull for you?

I realize this is a slightly morbid question, but I assure you that I'm asking in all seriousness.
posted by tugena13 to Science & Nature (22 answers total) 33 users marked this as a favorite
Why don't you speak with the people at Skulls Unlimited and see what they say. Even if they only do animals they probably know more about what the laws and crap are for human remains than almost anyone else.
posted by aubilenon at 5:40 PM on June 21, 2007

You might glean something from reading this New Yorker story about the late Del Close, who wanted to donate his skull to the Second City theatre in Chicago.

If not, it's an interesting story anyway.
posted by briank at 5:49 PM on June 21, 2007

i'm not sure it's legal. i remember reading about a guy who founded a theater company who wanted his skull to be used as a prop in "hamlet" after he died, and it wasn't legal.
posted by thinkingwoman at 5:49 PM on June 21, 2007

see, i shoulda previewed.
posted by thinkingwoman at 5:50 PM on June 21, 2007

I can't speak for California but I can tell you that in New York human remains can only be released to a New York licensed funeral director. The funeral director is bound by law as to what can be done with the remains.

I would suggest that you call a funeral home in California and ask them what the laws are. If you get a director with experience they will know. And they've probably heard the request before. My guess, though, is that there is no legal way to do it.

It may be that there is some state where it is legal (but I really, really doubt it - again, though, ask the funeral director). If that were the case, his body could be transported to that state after death.

If he has no other living relatives your fiancee would be considered his next of kin and can make decisions with regards to the disposition of the remains. Once he dies, the body is hers and she can do with it whatever she wants, within the laws of the state. She does not need his permission.

Nothing he signs before death will play any role in the situation, as far as I'm aware, although her life will be easier in other ways if he has a will.
posted by orsonet at 6:15 PM on June 21, 2007

It is quite morbid. Namely because you haven't mentioned about the father's wishes. Does he want or at the very least not mind you and your fiance owning his skull? I imagine whatever process you go through would be greatly eased by notarized, legal documents with the dad's express wish that this happen.
posted by zardoz at 6:25 PM on June 21, 2007 [1 favorite]

I don't think it's legal in California. It is certainly a very expensive proposition, too-- I would think you should expect to spend a lot more than you would on a traditional burial or cremation. I agree with orsonet that you should inquire with a local licensed funeral director.
posted by obloquy at 6:42 PM on June 21, 2007

A friend of mine has two doctors as parents (one's an ophthalmologist, can't remember the other's specialty as he doesn't practice any more). They had a few human bones (at least one skull) from medical school, so it's definately legit (also, Skulls Unlimited does have human items).

I don't see why you couldn't have the corpse left in a biodegrable shroud and buried, then exhumed when the flesh has decomposed (easier than... manual methods). I'd ask the anticipated-deceased if he minds first though.
posted by phrontist at 6:54 PM on June 21, 2007

Actually, that gives me an idea! Ask a local medical school if they'll accept the donation of a corpse on the condition that they separate and return the skull to you. I'd imagine they could make a lesson of it somehow... I'm sure they're always looking for corpses.
posted by phrontist at 6:57 PM on June 21, 2007

Response by poster: ATTN:

Obviously, none of this will even be considered if his dad is not ok with it. Duh. (Sorry I didn't mention that, it's sort of a given in my brain.) I don't actually know the guy's wishes, as I'm stuck in Chicago and can't be with the family out in California right now.

Thanks for the answers so far, gang.
posted by tugena13 at 7:07 PM on June 21, 2007

How does dad feel about having his skull saved as some sort of trophy? This is pretty disgusting and if Dad is not hip with this, a really, really bad idea. Unfortunately, I see no legal reason why he should not be able to do this, although I am considering writing to my elected to representatives to have that changed. If he really has his heart set on such a morbid quest, he should be very upfront with the funeral home, and best if this can happen prior to death and to prevent problems a get his pops to give his OK for this to the funeral home, both in person and follow up with a writing.
posted by caddis at 7:13 PM on June 21, 2007

This is awesome. I hope when I die someone will care enough to keep my skull. Good luck with this.
posted by subtle_squid at 7:57 PM on June 21, 2007 [3 favorites]

I know it can be arranged to get a sky burial, so I'd assume you could go that route and then just... not follow all the way through?

I have no idea how hard it is to get one arranged... you might even have to go out of the country. But its certainly possible..
posted by devilsbrigade at 8:01 PM on June 21, 2007

Re: donating the body to science. Yesterday, ColdChef, who is an undertaker, said this:
While there are certain places you can donate your body: medical schools, body farms, etc., it is often difficult to get on the waiting list for these, so apply soon. And, take into account, you will most likely be refused if you are not in good physical condition. (Ah, the paradox).
So, worth looking into.

If there's any way in the world your partner can get the skull, I imagine it could only help to have a signed and witnessed document from his dad saying "I understand that my son would like to keep my skull in his possession after my death. I support this intention and direct that my executor do everything within the law to make it happen." or something along these lines.
posted by LobsterMitten at 9:45 PM on June 21, 2007

The Del Close skull story was debunked in 2006. Shame, really. It's a great story.

As a morbid person, I'm intrigued by the idea of keeping the skull of someone. As an undertaker, I'm glad it's not my problem. The usual way of preserving a skull (from what I've read) is to have it removed from the body (I have no idea who would do this for you. It would be a painstaking and messy process and fairly disturbing for whoever would do it.), packed in ice, and shipped to a place in California (no, I don't know where, I just know it's in California), where flesh eating dermestid beetles are placed on the skull to eat the meat off for a few weeks. Then, the skull has to be cleaned and bleached. The jaw will separate, since there's nothing to hold it in place and it would have to be wired to the skull later. I can't even imagine what this would cost.

It's a long and complicated process and my professional opinion is that, in the long run, the kitsch of having your fathers skull will seem miniscule compared to the actual amount of headache involved in the work and legal loopholes of getting it done. Plus, you know, it's his dad. Sounds funny now, but it may not seem as funny when he realizes the unnaturalness of what he's doing. And, come's unnatural. And I say that as someone who loves this kind of shit.

The places that do this kind of thing with skulls do it for medical supply companies and probably not for families. But it never hurts to ask. Please let us know if you get any further with this.
posted by ColdChef at 10:39 PM on June 21, 2007

Ah! Wait! From an article on the Skulls Unlimited website:

Recently, a model at an art school e-mailed to ask how much it would cost, after her death, to turn her into a skeleton the school could use. Villemarette quoted a price of $7,500, with a discount for prepayment.

So...not out of the question, but not cheap.
posted by ColdChef at 10:41 PM on June 21, 2007

My condolences on the impending death of your fiance's father. BTW, one e at the end of fiance when describing a man.

This should have been an easy process for your fiance, but a combination of weird phobias, Christian assumptions, and possibly (with all respect to ColdChef) lobbying by the funeral industry has made it too byzantine to accomplish.

You might want to look up Parsi (also Parsee) funerals, and Tibetan sky burials to investigate the legal loopholes required to have a body defleshed. They basically expose bodies to be eaten by vultures, and I heard but have not confirmed that Parsi funerals have been performed in California.

If it is seventy-five hundred for a skeleton I'd figure about $1500 for a skull, since there's only one piece to wire together, and that they sell 'perfect' skulls for $750. However, who is going to decapitate the body and send the head to them? If you send the whole body it is going to drive up the cost I suspect.


I think it'd be easier to build up a pit or temperature controlled storage shed full of dermestid beetles (feed 'em roadkill?), and just roll the body out and then come back in a few days when it is hopefully a skeleton.
posted by BrotherCaine at 2:17 AM on June 22, 2007 [1 favorite]

As an aside, the boiling method of skull defleshing supposedly works, but leaves the skull a kind of nasty yellowish color from the rendered fat.
posted by BrotherCaine at 2:21 AM on June 22, 2007

Best answer: I put the question to my fellow morticians this morning. We had over 80 years of combined experience working on this. Here's what we've come up with:

1. Get it in writing from the soon-to-be-deceased. Legal rights end at death, but it may save you from the headache of trying to convince the authorities that these were his wishes. (And by "in writing", I'm talking lawyers and all. Close all those loopholes.)

2. If his wife is still alive, you must have her consent. If she is not, all siblings share the responsibility of what to do with the remains. ALL SIBLINGS MUST BE IN AGREEMENT. There is no legal leeway on this. You cannot cremate a body or dismember it if all siblings are not in agreement. "We can't find our sister" is not a viable excuse. This is why it's so hard to cremate a body when the next of kin live all over the place. Everyone has to sign and be notarized. Because cremation is such a final disposition. It's not unusual to bury a body for a time and then exhume it to cremate it later, once all siblings have signed.

3. Call your local coroner's office. Tell them your intentions. They may MAY be willing to remove the head for you. (When I called our local coroner, he laughed and laughed and laughed and when he was finished laughing, he said, "what the hell. I'd do it if they lived here." ) The coroner's main concern is that no foul play is involved and the head is properly identified. So: death occurs, body is turned over to coroner's office to be identified and de-headed. Funeral home buries the body or cremates. Head is frozen, packed in dry ice, sent to Skulls Unlimited.

4. All of this, of course, is contingent on whether Skulls Unlimited will do this for you and if you can agree on a price.

So...complicated, expensive, lots of paperwork. But do-able. Hope this helps. Drop me a line if you go through with it.
posted by ColdChef at 8:08 AM on June 22, 2007 [40 favorites]

First, I'm very sorry for your fiance's impending loss.

I'm not sure why responses are weighing in on how morbid or creepy (or not morbid or creepy) this is. It doesn't matter whether I or anyone else thinks this is morbid or creepy, if it's what the father and son want and they can find a legal way to achieve it.

I urge you not to set up your own bug room as suggested above. It would reek, and certainly would raise suspicions from the neighbors.

You might look around for a university (reasonably local to the father) that keeps a bug room for the archaeology department, and contact them. With a great deal of luck, you might run into an sympathetic and enthusiastic archaeologist who can make things easier for you, or suggest some other resource, or at least explain why it isn't feasible.

More likely, you'll get brushed off. But it's a possibility.

In the U.S., archaeologists may be skittish about handling unprovenanced human remains. The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act restricts handling of some human materials, and some archaeologists I know have decided to avoid any possiblility of mistake or misunderstanding by choosing not to handle human materials, period. So having the father's wishes notarized or formalized in some way seems like a good starting point.

(pssssst: You might want to watch the first season of Slings and Arrows, in which a character grapples with the same task.)

on preview: trust in ColdChef.
posted by Elsa at 8:28 AM on June 22, 2007

Thanks for all the answers, especially yours, ColdChef - I'm the fiance in question. And for those saying this would be 'unnatural' or 'disgusting,' maybe you should take a look at your own beliefs and behaviors before casting aspersions on others'.
posted by jtron at 6:01 PM on June 22, 2007 [4 favorites]

Any follow up on whether this was pursued, where the skull could be "de-fleshed", and what the costs would be?
posted by Ragma at 9:06 AM on May 9, 2008

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