The Blog

Flogging a Dead Corpse: The Sale of Human Remains


While I am the first to advocate access to human remains in museum collections, for reasons I've mentioned in previous posts, there is a forum in which I'm not sure the deceased should be quite so easily accessible and that is within the sphere of commerce.

In August 2012, online craft and knick-knack website Etsy re-evaluated its policy on the sale of human remains. The new guidelines prohibited the trade in human body parts, including but not limited to "things such as skulls, bones, articulated skeletons, bodily fluids, preserved tissues or organs, and other similar products." Very recently, The Mirror uncovered a thriving human remains trade on eBay in the UK despite them having a similar policy to Etsy on the sale of these products. Like Etsy, they do allow the sale of scalp hair (in the form of wigs and Victorian mourning jewelry) but it ends there. Confusion may arise from the fact that the eBay US policy allows the sale of hair and of "skulls and skeletons intended for medical use" but of course how can these supposed sales for 'medical use' be policed?

One thing that these reports flagged up is that most of the general public hadn't realised the sale of human remains in any form was even legal, let alone whether or not the associated guidelines needed revising.

I think this is still a common misconception. We colloquially hear about organs being sold on the 'black market', and the Human Tissue Authority in the UK has explicit prohibitions in place, stating "It is an offence to engage in the commercial dealings in bodily material for the purposes of transplantation" but openly admits its silence on the sale of remains for other purposes. But further along, the policy says "A key principle on which the Act is based is that all bodies, body parts or tissue should be treated with respect and dignity. The HTA considers that the need to maintain dignity and respect is paramount in the handling of all human bodies and tissue."

Yet there is something unsavoury and perhaps undignified about exchanging body parts for cash. We make the assumption that a trade in these products, if not illegal, then certainly must be something clandestine; something akin to a shifty salesman opening his mackintosh in a dark alley and showing his wares to immoral collectors. Etsy's policy manager Lauren Engelhardt writes in their policy change announcement, the site has "issues surrounding the sale of human bones." Similarly the website Inquisitr calls human remains "Questionable content". But the websites from which you can purchase human remains legally are easily accessed and this recent Vice article illustrates there are many collectors and sellers making a stellar living from these transactions. In fact, some of the most well-known and exemplary auction houses in the UK have sold body parts. In March 2013 Moore, Allen and Innocent auctioneers in Cirencester sold two skulls - one of which was wearing a Fez. (Insert comment here on the HTA's sentence on 'dignity', above...) In 2014, Summers Place Auctions in West Sussex sold the skull of 36 year old John Parker who had been hanged in the 1800s for stealing from a church. It fetched around £2000 and the case is covered extensively in the article The Dark Value of Human Remains.

Perhaps the unsavoury connotations lie within the dark past of the trade in human remains: the sale of cadavers to medical schools in the 1800s by Resurrection Men and the fear that a recently buried relative would be ripped from the ground and sold as a commodity?

As a result, in the UK, body parts are not assigned a cash value. When a person donates their body to science (via the London Anatomy Office or similar) this is done for free. If an organ donor chooses to donate his eyes so that the living can make use of the corneas, this too is done for free. This means that situations such as that of the US's Michael Mastromarino "The Organ Grinder" don't happen here.

I work in a pathology museum and I display human remains, so I need to consider this topic very carefully and it is something which came up for discussion recently in a focus group here.

(Below image of William Hunter (1718-1783) in his Windmill Street museum at The Resurrection, surrounded by skeletons and bodies searching for their missing pieces. Wellcome Images)

There is a difference between museum display and private ownership and that difference is context. In a museum setting, these artefacts - which may exist outwith the concept of consent - are de-objectified by the fact they are identified, labelled and catalogued correctly for educational purposes and set in an informative and suitable environment. In a recent collaborative research project I worked on, comments were indicative of a need to know more about the specimens, thus giving their display some validity and purpose. Thus their position within collections, accessible to the public and to medical students, works towards the greater good. Human remains when situated within the correct contexts, provide information on ethnicity, history of disease, occupational hazards, politics and more.

These same benefits are not afforded by pieces of anatomy which are objectified and displayed in private homes or perhaps shown to friends and family without the accompanying information: that is the fundamental operation of a carnival freak show, something that medical museums are distancing themselves from particularly in the wake of the 1990s organ retention scandal. As Shane McCorristine says "Ignoring the particular journeys that relics take into auction rooms, anatomy departments, death displays, and museums is methodologically unsound and acquiesces to acts of historical injustice."

As a result, museum curators are taking the responsibility for these items back. I recently chatted to the curator of the National Museum of Health and Medicine in Maryland on a UK visit who told me he regularly searches sites like eBay and reports items which he can tell, by sight or serial number, belong to a specific museum. After reporting them to the sale sites and to the local authorities these items are confiscated and returned to their rightful establishments. A paper from 2009 entitled "The Identification of a Human Skull Recovered from an Ebay Sale" illustrates the same phenomenon.

I suppose the question is 'why purchase human remains?' Is it because they are fascinating and beautiful? Many things are, but bones and skulls come with issues that a pair of Christian Louboutin shoes do not. Is it because they're educational and informative? Well they can only be so if they are described and exhibited by experts who can provide all the information relevant to their existence.

I find the human body beautiful and fascinating, educational and informative, and as a result I entered a vocational field in which I could study examples legitimately and with respect. Before I qualified I visited the many museums displaying specimens and obtained the various research published by those working professionally within the area. In this way I learned about and experienced the joy of our incredible and unique bodies in a manner which afforded them some dignity.

But perhaps purchasing them is something a bit more sordid: a bit like using a prostitute for sex: if you can get legitimate access to it, then you shouldn't need to pay for it.

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