We had a human skeleton in our biology class in high school. I remember thinking it was shorter than I expected, but I didn't know how, exactly, it ended up in our classroom. I suppose I assumed grave robbers, which lent a adventurous air to our teacher. But in fact, there are much more legitimate ways for a classroom or other teaching institution to obtain a human skeleton.
What if you want to make sure your alma mater, or your best friend, gets your skeleton after you die? There are a few ways you can make sure your skeleton carries on having adventures when you're no longer using it. Take a look at how to donate your skeleton!
I had a friend, growing up, whose mother had a human skull. They named it Yorick, and for the most part it sat on its shelf minding its own business. Occasionally, though, it peered out at me with eye sockets that I thought were disturbingly bright and cheery. When I asked where she got it, she mentioned a loose association with a medical institution. Where, though, did that medical institution get it? And where did my high school get a whole human skeleton? For that matter, where does one go if one wants to either sit on a shelf or hang in a high school biology closet after death?
There are two likely institutions to those who want to donate their skeletons. One is the famous Body Farm, at the University of Tennessee. The facility studies the different conditions under which human bodies decay. By watching bodies disintegrate under specific conditions, they're able to provide data that forensic experts can reference when they find the bodies of murder victims or campers that have died of exposure and have been left in open areas. Once the remains are done decomposing, the skeletons are cleaned and sent the Bass Donated Skeleton Collection. All bodies are assigned an identification number, and though loved ones are banned from the body farm itself, they can visit the remains at the Bass Collection, which is carefully curated.
Those loved ones have to be informed, though, since the center makes it very clear that they will not go to court to wrangle a body from the next of kin. They will also not accept a body that has HIV, hepatatitus, tuberculosis, or MRSA, unless it is cremated. Their FAQ is worth browsing through, especially since it includes questions like, "I have always wanted to be left out in the woods to decompose naturally. Do you honor any special requests for the placement of my body? Or any kind of special request regarding the use of my body?" The answer is yes, they'll do their best to honor requests, including negative requests like not being buried or left in water. But while that is a way to donate a skeleton, it's no way to actually give your skeleton to a particular institution or a loved one.
The other body center, the Laboratory of Human Osteology in New Mexico, is similarly unhelpful. While the Knoxville center is looking, more or less, for average individuals, the Osteology Lab is looking for a wide range of individuals, from many different backgrounds, with different medical conditions. After people sign up (the signing requires two witnesses), forms are sent out yearly, so you can let the center know if they break a bone. Although the institution does loan out remains for nondestructive research projects and does allow family members to see the remains, it doesn't allow donation to private institutions.
So where can you go when you really want to donate your skeleton to someone specific? This is where the private sector comes in. Skulls Unlimited is a private cleaning and mounting service for animal skulls, but it has a page with human skulls for sale as well. The website stresses that the skulls are only available to research institutions. They're not cheap, ranging from fifteen hundred to over two thousand dollars. Where did they get theirs? A representative from the company tells io9 that they got theirs from University Labs that didn't need them, or other research facilities. And that source gives a clue as to why these skulls are only available to other research institutions.
At last, though, we come to a place that allows people to donate their bodies to whomever they choose. When I asked the representative if I could, for example, have my body cleaned by them and then turn it over to an institution of my choosing, she asked calmly, "Your whole body or just the skull?" I told her, well, you know, either. And she said that they did that kind of thing all the time — although she couldn't quote me an exact price, since it would depend on things like dealing with the funeral home, the distance of the body from their facilities, and the hassle of transporting human remains across state lines. Still, it's good to know that one can gift one's skeleton to whoever or whatever one chooses. I just know that if I do it, I'm not going to be as cheerful as Yorick was.
Sitting Skeleton: Flickr