Caitlin Doughty is a mortician and the author of the New York Times bestseller Will My Cat Eat My Eyeballs?: Big Questions From Tiny Mortals About Death. And it's from that very book that The Atlantic pulled this excerpt, which it published last tear.
In "You Can't Keep Your Parents' Skulls," Doughty explores the legal history and rationale that make it incredibly difficult to keep the skull of a dead member as a keepsake, even if the deceased had previously given you written consent to do so in a non-creepy way. And that's how I learned such things as the states' rights considerations of skullduggery:
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).
I honestly never thought about this, but I suppose it makes sense. Similarly, that are apparently regulations that funeral homes must adhere to before releasing a corpse from their possession:
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.
And then, of course, there are the practical considerations around flesh removal and the cleaning of the bones:
There is currently no way in the United States to skeletonize human remains for private ownership.
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.
When Glenn Danzig sang "I want your skulls," I never expected there to be such a complicated legal process standing in the way of his desires.
These are all things I never needed to know, and yet, I'm now weirdly fascinated. Also, strangely relieved to be quarantined in a pandemic and not going out and being social, because these are exactly the kinds of fucked up facts that I would casually bring up at a party and make it weird.
You Can't Keep Your Parents' Skulls [Caitlin Doughty / The Atlantic]
Will My Cat Eat My Eyeballs?: Big Questions From Tiny Mortals About Death [Caitlin Doughty]
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