It isn’t about owning a skeleton. It is about access. It is about trust. It is about our shared humanity. It’s about communion with our mortality.
I made a decision when I was 13 that means some people think I should not be allowed to handle a skeleton now.
At that young age, a bunny-hugging, anti-vivisection, vegetarian, I refused to study GCSE biology because of the compulsory murder and dissection of healthy mice. That decision closed off entire avenues of study to me, which eventually would mean I could not study medicine or anatomy. Other decisions closed off archaeology. So that now, as a 47 year old, I face many questions as to why I want to touch a human skull. After all, I don’t have the relevant degrees.
I can view (but not touch) one skeleton, just one, entombed in glass, at a local museum.
There is no chance to get really close or to see it from different angles or in a different light. There is no guide as to its features, or to highlight what unique individuality the bones may retain. With only one skeleton on display, I can’t even learn how to tell male features from female, or young features from old. I am given no other clues as to what viewing it might mean when I try to imagine my own skeleton, or what may be left of me in the centuries to come.
This denial of access for the public to human remains isn’t due to scarcity.
Museums, part of the university archaeology departments or sometimes medical schools, have dozens if not hundreds of skeletons and skulls stored away. Many do need to be protected for their scientific value. But some do not. Some are barely ever unpacked. Archaeology departments have boxes of excavated anglo-saxon and medieval remains with little scientific context as they were disturbed for Victorian sewers or buildings.
The Human Tissue Act (HTA) came about because of professionals misjudging what would be viewed as respectful use of human remains, not the general public being disrespectful.
Ironically, the consequence of this law has cut many sources of public access to them. Medical schools have boxes of skeletons donated during their bone amnesties as everyone from St John’s Ambulance to the Art Schools dispose of the human remains they find in fear of falling foul of the HTA.
Closed rooms of experts with multiple degrees deciding who is qualified to access their stores of human remains has a whiff of elitism to me.
It implies that we normal people don’t know how to be respectful and cannot be trusted. We are not even consulted on what we may want or may be good for us.
Humans don’t need to be taught to act decently, we know how important death is and that requires sensitivity.
You don’t need years of academic indoctrination to handle human remains carefully and with dignity; we entrust the most delicate of this work to funeral directors and crematorium staff every day. These wonderful human beings not only care for our dead, but also care for the grieving living. They handle people in a most vulnerable stage of life and do it well and with infinite humanity.
The skeleton had already come to end of its academic life.
The skulls and skeletons that I have seen sold at auction are virtually all old anatomy teaching specimens, from the estates of retired surgeons, doctors or medics. Mine came with a letter from the coroner, certifying him as over 100 years old, humanising him with the nickname of “Fred” and wishing him well in his new home. The skeleton, beaten and worn down, with some imperfect repairs, and of little use to the scientific community, I felt I could give it a useful, continued life.
Sitting with it, I felt a strong connection with “my” skeleton.
I sat for hours, cradling bones carefully as I repaired and restrung the hand, the foot and the spine. I examined the skull from every angle and held the long bones against my limbs to judge its height, its strength, to gain clues about its life. I bought it as a photography subject, but it became much more than that. I bought it as I tried to find something meaningful to do whilst struck down at 31 with a long-term chronic illness, which kept me housebound and unable to work. It brought to me a personal understanding of my health, life and mortality. It brought an insight into our changing history with death.
I had thought that respect for the dead was in not seeing them,
not talking about death and burying or burning people’s remains so that it has as little impact on reminding living people of their mortality as possible. But it has not always been this. What is acceptable changes over time. I learned all this later, in researching my photography degree dissertation, as I struggled to even find photos of real human bones.
I hadn’t heard of death denial then. I hadn’t heard of my own culture’s changing views of showing respect.
I knew little of the changing death traditions of this country’s history. At some points my ancestors believed that showing respect to the dead included seeing and handling their bones. Some of my ancestors’ bones were undoubtedly dug up and interred in ossuaries. Some were buried in graves and visited by my family for cemetery picnics. Some distant aunt or uncle, dying whilst still a baby, would have been put in a box and kept close to the family in the home. It is difficult to know what the dead would have wanted, but it is wrong and uninformed to assume that respectful customs were the same to them as they are to us now.
Consent is a sticky issue.
Informed consent wasn’t really a consideration when this skeleton was made. I can’t say that what I am doing with this skeleton would have met with that person’s approval. But, if I could talk to someone in their middle age in 1900, dying and destined to become a teaching skeleton, I would explain:
In one hundred years, modern life and medicine will have virtually eliminated premature and childhood death. Free hospital care means that people rarely die at home, but we have lost the tradition of sitting by the deathbed, of the village coming to the support in this time of need. Many people won’t even go to a funeral before they are middle aged and have little idea how to cope with feelings of loss.
Many people have never even had seen a dead body. We have lost the tradition of the family sitting with and preparing the dead. But, being able to encounter human remains may help. Having the chance to hold a human skull, to touch the features on that dead face, and trace the same lines on their own face can give a small step towards coming to terms with our loss and our mortality.
If I could have told you that, and you have already been made into a skeleton and handled for 100 years. After that, would you, a century after your death, want to help these people?
This is how I would like to spend my life, my death and beyond. Helping people.
Though I don’t know what form that may take, I do believe that it a very human compulsion to want to help. I can’t say what a person from 1900 would have said, but the desire to help I am sure I share with my ancestors.
I became passionate about helping other members of the public have the opportunities I had – to see and touch human bones.
I couldn’t have done this without the insight and experience that I had gained from “owning” my own skeleton. I got to know the anatomists, the archaeologists, the museum staff, and to learn about their professional standards and perceived restrictions. I explained why I thought that letting the public handle human bones was important. I co-founded “Dying for Life” with the local Death Café organiser, with the aim of helping people confront death in order to have a more fulfilled life. With help and advice from these professionals, we organised an event to we allow the general public could choose to come and handle real human bones, and to talk about death.
Watching people touch a real human skull for the first time is amazing.
It isn't for everyone, and there should always be an option to avoid human remains. But when someone wants to engage, it is wonderful. It seems to follow a number of stages. Initial disbelief and nervousness that this is indeed a real human skull, and they are indeed allowed to touch it. With no social convention for this, there is much nervousness and incredible care, even the odd Yorick pose as they endeavour to overcome their inhibitions. It helps at this stage to talk through the features that can be seen – introducing if this skull was male or female, old or young. And it is at this stage that something amazing happens. As a person tries to feel the clues to the identity of the dead remains in their hands, they relate it to features on their own face. Fingers flit between a zygomatic arch and their own cheekbone. A thumb feeling the sharpness of the eye margin fights into the painful area of their own eye. A connection is made directly between the dead bones and the living person, imagining what tiny tales their own skull can tell others about their current rich and vivid life. They imagine their own death, and beyond. Stories spill out about accidents and illness and brushes with death. Stories expand to their family; a dead relative, a buried pet, a memory of a loved one that they have never felt they could share before.
This is where old skeletons can still be of immense use.
Touching it will not diminish its scientific value or compromise any further studies by the professionals. Instead it extends the useful life of the most precious gift donated by a person. It can meet the public and allow them their own communion with the dead, and their own mortality. Some comments from Dying for Life events included:
“it helped me in my life journey by allowing me to face my fears”
“encourages communication about death. It’s all okay, it’s no longer a taboo”
“my first real encounter with talking about death”
“it was great to see and handle human bones”
“It was fantastic to be able to handle a human skull. It was the closest I’d ever gotten to bones before, without them being behind glass.”
“I loved the displays, I’ve signed my body over to teach medical students after my death.”
It doesn’t need to become a lifetime of study to appreciate the impact it can have on enriching a person's life.
For some people, the encounter will lead to more interest, more study, maybe a new career. For other people, it is a moment in their life when they stop, consider what it is to be human, and move on. But it touches them. Perhaps like a beautiful painting or a piece of music, or a moment watching a garden bird, a pet or a child.
I realised that it isn’t about owning a skeleton. It is about access. It is about trust. It is about our shared humanity. It’s about communion with our mortality. Not because we are scientists, but because we are human, we are curious, we want to understand ourselves, and we are mortal.