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  • Susan Elaine Jones

If a body meet a body...

One of the benefits of writing this blog is that cool people contact me with cool things.

This week a lovely chap from University of Utah wanted to alert me to a podcast they have made about finding bodies on their building works. It appears, after some initial investigation, to be remains from medical cadavers, presumably from the medical school.

Cadaver photos for fun at turn of 19th century

Which raises on of those fun questions - historically, once you've finished learning from your illegal cadaver, (and taking fun photos) - what next?

You can't easily keep your cadaver bones - they're smelly and hard to ignore, and may get the police called. (Someday I will blog about the pains of holding on to smelly remains). Sometimes they turn up in retired doctors' estates (because you never quite get over your first skeleton). You can't sell it on ebay (at least not in the UK - imagine how unique that makes it!), but can put it in an auction - something many families seem to have to face. (Contact me for details of the standard prices these things fetch - auctioneers always lie so I've been tracking the results for years, running a skull index!)

Human remains for teaching sometimes turn up in strange places, for example the odd unclaimed skull in an intray, or the odd missing body. Sometimes you know you have a body, but want to keep its location a mystery, in case of vengeful royalists with turning up with spades again. I have heard of unattributed human remains turning up in museum stores, raising the question of "how would YOU dispose of the bones in a perfect murder"? Given the state of museum funding, such things can lounge in storage for decades with only the tag "found in stock" for the police to use to try to track back to you.

Speaking of odd places, I have had to gain access to my own human remains for photos. I have often had to question myself as to whether it is right to photograph human remains. Given they were intended for teaching, and we as the general public see less human remains than ever in history, I have decided that YES, it is a good idea (hence, see my website portfolio), but I still pull myself back from taking any images that I don't think are respectful. And even then, I have to be mindful of using skeletons over 100 years old and so legally outside the Human Tissue Act. So it helps to have a letter from the coroner to confirm that, and share a similar feeling of respect tinged with humour.

Coroner's letter on the skeleton (aka "Fred")

Note - "Fred" will be available as a drawing aid at the upcoming Skeletons, Stories and Social Bones Conference in Southampton, 20-22nd March 2018, as will my exhibition of images including the premier of prints from the Ossuary in Rothwell!

Anyway, as one approach to this issue, please enjoy the podcasts from the University of Utah - especially episodes 3 and 4 about cadavers and what the bones can tell us about the lives of the people who ended up in the cadaver labs. And feel free to write in with your own thoughts of the morality of working with, keeping and using human remains, for teaching, art or otherwise.

* If this post has made you keen to contribute your body to science, please contact Cambridge University Department of Human Anatomy who, unlike many schools, still teach from real cadavers... I'll hopefully see you there!

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