Human skulls can be pierced using coffin nails, and human bones can be made into Ouija board pieces. A Live Science investigation found that almost everything is allowed in the U.K.’s thriving online trade in human remains.
Selling human remains is legal in the U.K. provided the body parts are not used for transplants. Facebook and Instagram are great places to sell the dead. There are many options for selling human remains, including those of children, adults, and babies.
Live Science documented 50 sellers across England and Wales that used Facebook and Instagram to offer human remains for sale between 2020 and 2022. Some sellers offered a skull or bone in private Facebook groups. Others offered multiple human remains through Instagram and Facebook pages that were associated with antiques and oddities, taxidermy businesses and physical shops.
Sellers or collectors often post pictures of unaltered human remains unless the bones have been cleaned and prepared for study or learning in the past. Live Science found disfigured remains.
One Instagram seller posted this picture of a skull with the words “killem” inscribed on the side. The skull was also adorned with coffin nails and had been made into a lamp. The user, named Joseph Plaskitt according to his Instagram profile, posted a picture of the altered skull on Oct. 17, 2021. Live Science was told by Plaskitt that the skull was a teaching piece from Europe and had been carved “by a fellow collector “.
Live Science discovered more human skull lamps that were shared by other sellers. There were also steampunk-inspired skulls with cogs, gears, and other mechanical parts. There were also skulls that looked like vampires.
The human remains trade seems to be flourishing on Facebook and Instagram despite the fact that Meta, the parent company behind Facebook and Instagram prohibits the sale or use of bodily fluids under its terms __ policies . Live Science was informed by a Meta spokesperson that they had removed violating content and will continue to remove content consistent with our policies .”
This isn’t the only story that highlights the role of social media and human remains trade. For example, Wired reported in 2019 that Instagram had a booming human skull trade, and a 2020 Live Science investigation found U.S. sellers offering up looted skulls and other human remains in private Facebook groups. A Facebook spokesperson told Live Science in 2020 that once they become aware that a group has violated their policies they take action against them.
Most of the skulls and bones Live Science documented in this study appeared to be anatomical or medical specimens. They could have been decades or centuries old. A 2019 editorial published in the BMJ estimated that there are likely thousands of human skeletons from medical education sources in private possession in the U.K., with medical students encouraged to buy bones for their studies in the 20th century. Human remains can be sold without any backstory, and can circulate in trade for many decades. They may change hands multiple times so it is difficult to trace their origins.
The human remains trade has also been linked to grave robbing. It is illegal to disturb a place where remains are formally laid to repose without a license. Researchers have determined that the deceased, regardless of their identity, didn’t consent to their remains being used in this manner.
“Nobody agrees to have their body bought or sold,” Shawn Graham, a digital archeologist from Carleton University in Canada, told Live Science.
Graham studies human remains trafficking online using images posted to the internet by sellers to track global trade. He believes that the human remains posted online are authentic, partly because collectors don’t want replicas and it’s in their best interest to offer real remains. But also because replicas can be easily identified. Live Science did not verify the authenticity of any remains, but they showed researchers images of the remains as part of the investigation. The experts believed that all the specimens were genuine.
One popular seller offered black-stained human skulls with iron nails for teeth, human bone wind chimes and Ouija board planchettes (the triangular gameboard pieces), and wallets crafted from human and pig skin. Henry Scragg, an online seller, promotes his merchandise via Facebook and Instagram. He also has an online shop and a museum called “Curiosities From the 5th Corner” in Essex.
Scragg didn’t respond to Live Science’s questions, but on an Instagram post promoting the human skin wallets on Sept. 13, he wrote, “To some these are awesome, to others, they ask why. But why not? But why not?
Two scientists from forensics told Live Science that some skulls found during Live Science’s investigation seem to have been taken from victims of violent death. Two skulls that Scragg offered for sale appeared to have been shot.
Scragg said in a March 29 social media post that one of the skulls was most likely from a suicide victim, and the other, in an earlier post on July 2, 2020, was an executed prisoner from China. Two forensic scientists noticed visible gunshot wounds in the photos, but they couldn’t confirm the claims. Nicholas Marquez Grant, Cranfield University’s senior lecturer in forensic and anthropology, said that the skull of the alleged prisoner had at least two gunshot wounds. This is a common spot for executions.
A third skull–shared in a July 11, 2020, post–had injuries that were compatible with blunt force to the head around the time of death. Marquez Grant noted that blunt force injury can be caused by being hit with a blunt weapon such as a baseball bat or by hitting a large and wide surface. In this instance, the blunt force seems to have been against large surfaces. Marquez Grant told Live Science via email that it could have been an accidental death but was certainly violent in nature.
All three skulls were professionally cleaned and prepared for study or teaching, with medical cuts. According to forensic scientists, they are most likely retired anatomical or medical specimens.
Is it legal?
The U.K. legislation that prohibits the sale or purchase of human remains is mostly ignored. Anybody can possess, sell, and buy human body parts provided they have not obtained them illegally or aren’t using them for transplants. The remains are not technically property and cannot be legally “owned .”
For example, if a museum holds human remains and a descendant of that deceased person decides to walk into the museum and take them, that might not be considered theft, according to a 2003 report by the Working Group on Human Remains for the U.K. government’s Department for Culture, Media and Sport (now the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport). There are situations in which human remains could be considered legal property.
” If you take human remains and apply work or skill to them to make something new or different, you create an article of property,” Heather Conway from Queen’s University Belfast, Northern Ireland, explained to Live Science.
Conway cited legal precedent. In 1998, the Court of Appeal for England and Wales upheld a conviction against an artist who stole anatomical specimens from the Royal College of Surgeons in London on the grounds that the college’s application of skill to create the specimens made them property and that taking them was therefore theft, according to a 1998 commentary in the Medical Law Review journal.
Conway pointed out that the destruction of human remains that have acquired property status could also constitute criminal damage, which is a different offense than destroying unaltered human remains.
The Human Tissue Authority (HTA) is part of the U.K. government’s Department of Health and Social Care. It states that all human remains should be treated with respect and dignity. However, the law in England and Wales doesn’t prohibit the desecration of corpses. Scotland is an exception.
To put that into context, the desecration of a statue or memorial can land a person in prison for up to 10 years under the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022, according to the Home Office, another U.K. government department.
“It is really strange that we have offenses related to desecrations of monuments but not people,” Imogen J. Jones, an associate professor of Law at the University of Leeds in England told Live Science.
There is nothing to stop people from desecrating human remains in private, although sexual penetration of a corpse is illegal under the Sexual Offences Act 2003. Jones pointed out that public tampering can be a crime under outraging public decency.
In 1989, a jury ruled that earrings made from freeze-dried human fetuses displayed in a London art gallery were an outrage to public decency, the Associated Press reported at the time. The artist was fined PS500 ($875), and the gallery curator was fined PS350 ($610)–around PS1,180 and PS826 ($1,338 and $937) in today’s money.
Live Science discovered that many of the sellers claimed to have preserved human fetuses and was able to see them in photos of private collections along with the skeletons and skeletons from children and babies. These human remains weren’t modified like some adult skulls and bones were, but the 1989 case highlights a legal precedent for modified human remains outraging public decency.
Some laws can also limit the sharing of images of desecrated remains online. For example, Jones pointed to the Obscene Publications Act 1959, for which the U.K. Crown Prosecution Service notes prosecutors may consider outraging public decency first. The U.K. also has the Communications Act 2003, which covers messages and other matters that are grossly offensive or of an indecent, obscene or menacing character through a public electronic communications network. These laws are subjective in their interpretations of obscenity. No law prohibits the desecration or destruction of corpses.
Where do the human remains come from?
The majority of human remains Live Science examined appeared to have been used for learning or research. Live Science discovered pictures of bones alongside boxes with the names of medical supply firms on them, including Adam, Rouilly & Co. The company, now called Adam, Rouilly, deals in synthetic models today but is open about supplying real skeletons to medical students in the 20th century on its website. Rouilly did not respond to a request to comment.
Private collectors may have held human remains that were used to train medical students or to treat diseases before they were sold. Experts disagree with the claim that these remains are ethically sourced by some sellers.
“They were not ethically sourced in any way,” Trish Biers (an osteologist, paleopathologist, and University of Cambridge) told Live Science. Biers coordinates a task team at the British Association for Biological Anthropology and Osteoarchaeology that investigates the sale and trading of human remains and the objectification and commodifications of the dead and does outreach.
In the late 1700s, London gangs dug up newly buried bodies and sold them to teachers to supply a growing demand for teaching specimens. The teachers and students also sometimes stole bodies themselves, according to the UK Parliament website.
The trade came under scrutiny in the late 1820s when the public learned that two men called William Burke and William Hare–often called Burke and Hare–were killing people to supply bodies to the University of Edinburgh’s anatomy department in Scotland. After Burke was caught and executed, his skin was turned into a notebook at the same university he’d been supplying, according to the University of Edinburgh .
The Anatomy Act 1832 sought to quell grave robbing and the outcry by establishing a new legal source of bodies; the unclaimed from workhouses, hospitals and prisons, as well as by making body donation legal. But the demand for bodies continued to increase through the 19th and 20th centuries, so the problem of finding bones was outsourced and the U.K. began getting its medical bones from abroad, especially India.
In 1984, at the peak of the medical supply trade in human remains, India exported about 60,000 skeletons and skulls to Britain and other European countries, America, and Australia for medical students, the Chicago Tribune reported in 1985.
Many of the bodies that are now being traded were originally from poor communities. Biers stated that this was their only means of getting someone to take their dead. They couldn’t afford a funeral plot and couldn’t afford cremation. It’s really sad .”
The trade in India had strong links to grave robbing, just like in the U.K. prior to the Anatomy Act 1832. Veena Mushrif (a bioarchaeologist at Deccan College Post-Graduate and Research Institute, Pune, India) told Live Science via email that most graves were robbed to get skeletons. It was unethical .”
Mushrif stated that it was easy for Europeans access to India’s skeletons as India was a British colony. India was under British rule for around 200 years until it gained independence in 1947. India remained the U.K.’s main source for human remains even after independence.
The Indian government banned skeleton exports in 1985 after a bone trader was arrested for exporting 1,500 skeletons belonging to children. This sparked fears that children were kidnapped and killed for their bones, investigative reporter Scott Carney reported for WIRED in 2007.
Carney, who also wrote a book about the global market in body parts called “The Red Market ” (William Morrow, 2011), told Live Science that the trade out of India continues today, but it’s greatly diminished compared with before the ban in 1985. China was another mass exporter of human skeletons in the 20th century and didn’t bring in a ban until 2008, according to the BABAO website.
Universities and museums are also subject to unethical methods of acquiring human remains. Biers stated that many collections were populated not only with colonized bodies but also the poor who had no other choice, the disfigured and the disenfranchised, and the ethnically diverse. “They were all placed in collections, but not in an ethical manner .”
The Human Tissue Act 2004, which created the HTA, established clearly that body and organ donation required personal informed consent. The HTA regulates the use of human remains for medical treatment, postmortem examination, education, training, and display in public. This ensures that they are treated with respect and dignity. Furthermore, if the remains are less than 100 years old, a license is required that must include proof of consent from the deceased–but this doesn’t apply to the remains of people who died before 2006 if more than 100 years has passed since their death, according to the HTA Codes of Practice.
Private ownership does not have such regulations. The HTA does not inspect shops that sell human remains. A statement from the HTA can be found at the bottom.
Two sellers stated to Live Science that they wouldn’t disrespect human remains in possession of them and claimed that private collectors are likely to treat ex-medical remains more respectfully than they would in places of learning or study.
” I try to treat them with the most respect possible,” said Chris Bull, an internet seller based in Bristol. He believes that this means “just not being stupid with them .”
Another seller online, Mattaeus Ball from Reading, said that he also respects human remains and won’t do anything “grotesque” with them. He argued that private collectors are taking good care of the remains that were thrown away by the medical industry.
” These were people who were exploited in the medical industry. Once we were done with them, drawing over them, writing on them, cutting them up and treating them as an object, they were discarded,” Ball stated.
There is still a demand for skeletons within academia. BABAO attempts to transfer specimens to the collections that most need them. Biers also accepts unwanted, privately owned human skulls and bones from members of the public to be used for educational purposes.
In fact, so many institutions require skeletons to teach across different disciplines, that there is a shortage of them. Even though people are willing to donate their bodies to medical science, it’s not impossible.
“Some people purchase human remains to be used in teaching because they don’t have the budget for a lab.” Biers stated. This means that human skulls and bones can be sold in the oddities market, and then re-exported to teach. Biers stated that human remains will not be returned to private collectors or disposed of in an unethical manner if this happens.
Repatriating human remains that were acquired for the medical industry is difficult and expensive; it requires DNA testing and other research to discover the person’s ancestry and where they came from. Although it is possible, most of these skulls or bones will not be formally buried in their homelands due to the trade scale.
“There is a movement now that aims to find a way to reclaim these bodies. But it was so prolific,” Biers stated. “You’re talking about thousands and even thousands of bodies, over many, many, long, many decades
Human Tissue Authority statement
The HTA provided Live Science the following statement:
” The Human Tissue Act sets the remit of the Human Tissue Authority. This requires that certain activities involving human tissue must be licensed and subjected to regulatory oversight by the HTA. The HTA regulates organizations that use, store, and remove human tissue for research, patient care, post-mortem examination, surgical training, and public display. These activities must be authorized for lawful conduct. The HTA’s Code of Practice A outlines the four Guiding Principles that govern the use of human tissue within the HTA’s remit. These four principles should guide all those who engage in activities that fall within the HTA’s remit: consent, dignity and quality, honesty and openness, and quality.
Public display of human tissue may be subject to regulation by The Human Tissue Authority under certain circumstances. This depends on the material’s age and the time it has been held .”
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