I stumbled into the dark world of online human remains sellers during a long car ride from Colorado to Wyoming. After following an artist tagged #darkarts on Instagram (I highly recommend that hashtag), the app suggested Belgian artist Dolen Carag to me. He makes sculptures by carving designs into human skulls. Naturally, I followed, prompting more recommendations. Soon I was following down a rabbit hole of bony Instagram feeds that have attracted thousands of fans like flies to their riveting corpse collections.
Users like Skullessence, whose 5,000 followers primarily see pictures of skulls described as belonging to cannibals or headhunters, appear to be in it purely for the goth aesthetic. Some, like a “collector and admirer of the weird and wonderful” with over 10,000 followers called Skullhunter1979, both show and sell. Typically, Skullhunter1979’s descriptions include the geographic origin of the skull’s former owner, a few details about their life if there are any available, and prices ranging from a few hundred bucks to well over $1,000.
Then there’s SkulltureFactory, which occasionally sells bones, but mostly shares pictures of human remains that have wild abnormalities or have been transformed by burial rituals. DeathIsntTheEnd sells skulls and everything from a mummified shark’s head to a gator skin bag. It also shares bone memes. Steven Delnooz's Craniac account has earned over 9,000 followers for his pictures of rare tribal skulls and irreverent sense of humor.
Josh Balz, who runs The Strange and Unusual Oddities Parlor page, pivoted to trading rare objects after parting with his Pennsylvania metal band Motionless in White. As a result, he has one of the largest followings of Instagram’s oddity traders, dwarfing even local Brooklyn legend and co-star of the Discovery Channel show Oddities, Mike Zohn.
“I started buying while I was on tour,” Balz told me in an email. “I just got bored of going to Walmarts and malls every day, so I’d venture out and stumble upon these items that were one-of-a-kind. I instantly felt my calling, which my band members hated, maybe because I’d fill the bus with a bunch of dead shit that was probably haunted. But hey, we were a goth rock band, so it made sense to me!” Balz stores his collection in the renovated church where he lives.
Carag was an airbrush painter for over 25 years before cutting his teeth on human skull carving. “I was fascinated by Tibetan carved skulls and I was looking for a new challenge,” he said. “I decided to give it a try on a human skull I had in my collection. Fellow collectors and oddity-enthusiasts generally like them very much, but when the ‘normal’ viewer realizes that they are looking at real human skulls, I have seen quite a few take a step back.”
Many of the Instagrammers I spoke to said they got their bones from antique shops and flea markets. Others have access to unique individual sellers. Balz said he’s met hundreds of skull owners while touring and scouting for oddities.
“The majority of mine come from from retired dentists,” Dalton German, who has over 15,000 followers on his account OddArticulations, said in an email. He has bought 26 skulls so far, along with two skeletons: one fully articulated, pieced together with metal wire, and one disassembled. “It used to be mandatory to have a real human skull in dental school. You could buy one just as you buy textbooks today. These dentists are now retiring, and looking to get rid of the skulls, so I buy and resell them.”
Trading in human body parts seem like the kind of thing that must be illegal, or at least heavily regulated. But according to bone sellers, that’s not quite the case. “Honestly, human bones are much easier to sell than most animals because so much is protected,” said Balz. “As long as you stay away from sketchy dealers and stick to educated collectors that have a paper trail, you will stay out of trouble. There are only a few states that prohibit the sale of human remains and Pennsylvania is the Wild Wild West for just about anything.”
Carag added, “In most countries, it is perfectly legal to own these and no papers or permits are needed. But in any case, we always check out the legal situation before shipping human remains out to another country.”
To clarify, I called up Tanya Marsh, a law professor at Wake Forest University who specializes in funeral and cemetery law amd runs the podcast Death, et seq. She said US law around human remains is vague because they don't quite fit into the two categories—people or property—that define our legal system.
A skull clearly isn't a person, but the law doesn't necessarily see it as property. Human bodies have the right to respect and “undisturbed repose” in the United States, and the living have a legal responsibility to protect them. Digging up a body is against the law, but it gets more complicated when a grave under US jurisdiction hasn't been disturbed. Organs can’t be sold because they’re not property, according to Marsh, but they’re not people either. Can you sell your own limb—or turn it into tacos—if it’s detached during your lifetime? It’s hard to say. In short, if a body wasn’t dug up in the US, didn’t belong to a US citizen or Native American, and doesn’t come from a human who was assaulted or killed, there isn't really a federal law to prosecute.
Marsh also brought up the ethical dilemmas that come with the human remains trade, which is completely different from the law. Many of the existing artifacts on the market are relics of 19th-century medical institutions paying top dollar for cadavers and skeletons for studies and experiments. The cadaver trade in the early 1800s was highly linked to the slave trade. India was the premier source for medical cadavers in the 20th century, until it banned their export in 1985. WIRED reports that black market bodies have continued to make their way into hospitals and schools for decades. China was also a major supplier until the cadaver export was banned before the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Many of the specimens in the globe-trotting Bodies exhibit may have been Chinese political prisoners who were tortured before they were executed. “The vast majority of these specimens didn’t give consent,” said Marsh.
Instagram is a natural platform for sellers, especially since Etsy and eBay have both banned the sale of human remains on their platforms. The collectors I spoke to say they are diligent about making sure the paperwork is in order when they buy and sell human remains. SkulltureFactory even posts PSAs about bones entering the market that may be stolen.
However, these Instagram-famous bone shops may be an endangered species. Archaeologists Damien Huffer and Shawn Graham are trawling the platform, as well as Facebook, in search of illicit human remains. They’ve published a study called, “The Insta Dead: The Rhetoric of the Human Remains Trade on Instagram." They write in the study that they’ve discovered, “a well-connected network of collectors and dealers… with a surprisingly wide-reaching impact on the 'enthusiasts' who, through their rhetoric, support the activities of this collecting community, in the face of legal and ethical issues generated by its existence."
As knowledge of the community grows, its members who don’t follow the law with discipline may face ramifications. The state of Louisiana has increased protections for burial sites, ramped up the punishment for selling human remains, and devoted significant resources to cracking down on those who do. At least one of the accounts I followed earlier this summer has been scrapped.
In spite of the grey area surrounding this community, its members feel enriched by the experience of studying the human form. German, who makes a living articulating his clients's deceased pets, said, “I think people enjoy being able to see the features in a real human skull that aren’t visible in the plastic models. Sutures, nasal turbinates, inner ear bones, sinus cavities, real teeth, pathology, natural imperfections, etc. that ‘perfect’ plastic skulls don’t accurately show.”
The greatest joy of being a human remains collector seems to be rooted in the community of misfits behind it. “The people who buy oddities are always the most wonderful people with the best stories and biggest hearts,” said Balz. “They don’t only appreciate your product but also that we have created a place to be able to obtain such strange and unusual products.”
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