You Can’t Keep Your Parents’ Skulls

Under U.S. law, it’s nearly impossible to get permission to decapitate and de-flesh a relative’s remains.

A woman looks at a human skull.
Stefan Wermuth / Reuters

You might (or might not) be surprised at how often in my work as a mortician I am asked whether a mourning family member can keep a dearly departed’s skull. Assuming your intentions are good, you’re looking at three major hurdles to clear before Dad’s brainpan can hold jelly beans on your coffee table: paperwork, legal control, and skeletonization.

In theory, people get to decide what happens to their body after death. In reality, it is near impossible to get legal permission to display a relative’s skeleton.

I’ll tell you what’s not going to work: marching over to your local funeral home and saying, “Greetings! That’s my mom’s corpse over there. Could you just pop off her head and de-flesh her skull? That would be great. Thanks!” Your average funeral home (really, any funeral home) is not set up to handle such a request, legally or practically.

This post was excerpted from Doughty’s upcoming book.

As a funeral professional, I frankly have no idea what equipment a proper decapitation requires. The subsequent de-fleshing would probably involve boiling and/or dermestid beetles, incredible creatures used in museums and forensic labs to delicately eat the dead flesh off a skeleton without destroying the bones. Dermestids are happy to wade into a gruesome, sticky mass of decaying flesh and delicately clean around even the tiniest of bones.

Back to Mom’s head. She could create a written, signed, dated document explicitly stating that she wants you to have her skull after she dies. It would be similar to the document people sign if they want to donate their body for scientific research. But even with that paperwork, and aforementioned head removal, my funeral home could not legally hand over the decapitated head, because of something called abuse-of-corpse laws. These laws vary from place to place, and can sometimes seem a little arbitrary. For example, the law in Kentucky says you’re committing corpse abuse if you treat a dead body in a way that “would outrage ordinary family sensibilities.” But what is an “ordinary family”? Maybe in your “ordinary family” Dad was a scientist who always promised that when he died, he would leave you both his collection of Bunsen burners and his skull.

Abuse-of-corpse laws exist for a reason. They protect people’s bodies from being mistreated (ahem, necrophilia). They also prevent a corpse from being snatched from the morgue and used for research or public exhibition without the dead person’s consent. History is littered with such violations. Medical professionals have stolen corpses and even dug up fresh graves to get bodies for dissection and research. Then there are cases like that of Julia Pastrana, a 19th-century Mexican woman with a condition called hypertrichosis, which caused hair to grow all over her face and body. After she died, her husband saw that there was money to be made by displaying Pastrana in freak shows, so he took her embalmed and taxidermied corpse on world tour. Pastrana had ceased to be regarded as human; her corpse had become a possession.

Because of abuse-of-corpse laws, nobody’s dead body can be claimed as property. “Finders keepers” doesn’t apply here. But unfortunately, those same laws prevent you from plopping Mom’s skull on your bookcase.

So where do skulls on bookcases come from? In the United States, no federal law prevents owning, buying, or selling human remains, unless the remains are Native American. Otherwise, whether you’re able to sell or own human remains is decided by each individual state. At least 38 states have laws that should prevent the sale of human remains, but in reality the laws are vague, confusing, and enforced at random. In one seven-month period in 2012–13, 454 human skulls were listed on eBay, with an average opening bid of just under $650 (eBay subsequently banned the practice).

Many skulls for private sale have questionable origins, sourced from the thriving bone trades in India and China. The bones are usually obtained from people who couldn’t afford cremation or burial. So to be clear: You can’t own your own mother’s corpse, but if you are willing to engage in some suspect internet commerce, a femur from the other side of the world might make its way into your home.

Even if you exploit fuzzy legal arguments in your quest to get your hands on Dad’s skull, you’re still going to run into a big problem: There is currently no way in the United States to skeletonize human remains for private ownership. For the most part, skeletonization happens only when a body is donated to scientific research. Even this isn’t explicitly legal; authorities just tend to look the other way for museums and universities. But under no circumstances can you just skeletonize your dad and display his head among the decorative gourds in the Thanksgiving centerpiece.

In every state, funeral homes use something called a burial-and-transit permit, which tells the state what is going to be done with a dead person’s body. Some laws prohibit human remains from being deposited anywhere that’s not a cemetery. The options are usually burial, cremation, or donation to science. That’s it: three simple things. There is no “cut off the head, de-flesh it, preserve the skull, and then cremate the rest of the body” option. Nothing even close.

If there were any legal wiggle room that might allow a person to get Dad’s head liberated from its fleshy shell, Tanya Marsh would know how to find it. Marsh is a law professor and the expert on human-remains law. “I will argue with you all day long,” she told me, “that it isn’t legal in any state in the United States to reduce a human head to a skull.”

This post was excerpted from Doughty’s upcoming book, Will My Cat Eat My Eyeballs?: Big Questions From Tiny Mortals About Death.