IT HAPPENED TO ME: I'm an Ethical Collector of Human Bones and Other Weird Stuff

I look like a normal IT geek, but it’s all an elaborate ploy to fund my rampant lust for real human heads.
Publish date:
January 14, 2015
antiques, ethics, Human Bones, Witchcraft, Oddities, Bones, Occult

Remember me? Probably not, because I was that really quiet goth kid in high school. A decade later, I have a master’s degree and an IT job managing a bunch of precious software engineers. I wear lots of conservative black, gray, and navy by Ann Taylor LOFT and live in a sleepy suburban neighborhood in the Bible Belt. Are you bored yet? Don’t worry, this is where things get super weird.

I am also an obsessive collector of antique oddities. I like books on the esoteric and disturbing medical instruments. But what I really like are human bones, especially ones that aren’t quite perfect. A re-healed, once-broken human tibia? I’m listening. An abnormal human skull? I’m all ears — and probably about to pay for your dinner so you’ll keep talking.

There are a few stars in my budding collection, but I’m especially fond of Xiang. His bone structure, size, and cranial lines tell me he was likely an abnormally large Asian gentleman who died in his late 20s. A real giant among men.

Bone collecting is probably more common than you think. In fact, it’s a crazy tight market. You can thank reality television series Oddities and a semi-recent revival of the occult, witchcraft, and goth culture among millennials for that. Besides, China outlawed the export of human remains in 2008, and India shut down its export in the late 1980s. A decade ago, you could spend $500 on an intact human skull. Now, you could easily drop four times that amount. Right now, us weirdos are fighting tons of demand and exactly zero new supply entering the marketplace.

Unless you've got tons of cash (and really, who does?), aspiring bone collectors need to be shrewd as hell. My successful acquisition of human bones has required tons of research in law, ethics, osteology, and antiques dealing.

If you're wondering, there is absolutely a black market for oddities. I’m no prude, but I still want exactly nothing to do with stolen human remains. Interested in jumping on this dark and creepy train to pariah town with me? Here’s what I’ve learned during this journey.

Can I Really, Honestly Buy Bones? Cross Your Black Little Heart?

Depending on where you live, it is most likely legal for you to purchase human bones. This is the part of the story where I’d better make a massive disclaimer, so here it comes. Check your laws. Ask a lawyer if you’re uncertain. Legislation varies within the U.S. and around the world. Be careful, and inform yourself fully before you proceed with any purchase, ever.

Laws can also vary depending on the origin and type of human remains. It’s usually legal and easy to purchase hair and teeth. It is difficult and not always legal to purchase human tissue. It’s never legal to purchase the bones of Native Americans and some other indigenous cultures. I am confident that grave-robbing is both illegal and a generally awful thing to do, so I implore you to not support this terrible industry.

Also, there are some ethical considerations that you need to address before you start pouring money into this. Most bones for sale were legally exported from China or India for medical education prior to 2008. These don’t always have the prettiest back stories, and these stories are virtually never recorded. Your legal purchase could be possible because an impoverished, grieving family sold their dead father’s body out of necessity. You’ll probably never know for sure. Bones aren’t simple, and I've not made the decision to buy them lightly.

You Can’t Buy a Human Femur at Goodwill

You can purchase skulls and bones on eBay, but that carries a unique set of challenges when it comes to authenticating origin. Etsy is willing to carry human teeth and hair. There are several well-known eCommerce retailers I can recommend without any reservation, but they aren’t cheap. Basically, when it comes to buying human bones online, you can choose between hemorrhaging cash or buying something that could be questionable. Honestly, I bypass eCommerce. I belong to some Facebook groups for collectors, but it’s mostly for the educational benefits. Basically, I’m working hard to infiltrate my local collectors scene. If your hometown has an oddities shop, this is the perfect place to start making friends. Be authentic and engaged, and know your stuff, because no one likes some dilettante. Many collectors give ridiculous deals or trades to their friends. Buying from a known and trusted expert is the best option I can give you.

Where Should I Never Buy Bones?

Sooooo glad you asked, dear. My rule is pretty simple when it comes to purchases.

Rule #1: If something doesn’t seem quite right about a purchase or a seller's story, back away slowly.

If someone offers you a cheap human skull that once belonged to a Warrior Prince, don’t do it. Cheap or fascinating bones are usually shrouded in lies. They were probably stolen from somewhere in your country, or smuggled from someone’s grave overseas. Pretty much all of the listings behind the second page of Google results are scammers who will take your money and send you nothing but sadness. I have literally been offered a skull that was stolen from a holy place in Europe. Uh, no, and no again.

It’s natural to become irrationally excited when you find a potential deal, because they’re hard to find. But I cannot emphasize this enough: Book and street smarts. Book smarts, street smarts. Have both.

Don’t go into some Craigslist stranger’s house because he’s offering a wicked deal on a rib cage. Be careful about letting random people into your own home, especially as the value of your fledgling collection blossoms. I can’t recommend some exposure to osteology strongly enough, either. It’s not that hard to size up a skull’s approximate age and other identifiers, like race and gender if you know a few things to look for.

Am I Prepared to Bring a Human Skull into My Living Space?

If you are not spiritual, religious, or into concepts like energy, that’s rad and you can skip this part. If you are, that’s also rad. Here’s what you need to know.

Humans have energy. Antiques have a “feeling” to many of us, and it’s a residue of their former owners. However, there is nothing that holds more human energy than our bones. I don’t think that bones will carry spirits or ghosties into your home, but they’ll definitely bring some energy, and that energy will probably feel human in a way that’s both magical and hard to explain. I’ve never held a skull that didn’t buzz or sing into my hands. For us sensitive and creepy types, this is the equivalent of an energetic orgasm.

Because of my beliefs, I only buy bones that I can touch. That’s right, no Internet deals for me. You might feel like you need to ask the bones’ permission to bring them home, and that’s just fine. I’ve never held a bone that felt gross or angry to me, but I’m sure they’re out there. I treat my bones with a lot of reverence and respect, and they’re a really positive part of my home.

If you’re into it, your new bones can become a part of your spiritual practice. Loads of cultures around the world have a time-honored tradition of offerings to the dead. You can build an altar around bones and leave chocolates, feathers, or stones. Burn some incense, or incorporate these bones into any ancestral magic workings you perform. Do whatever feels right to you, and fully embrace the spiritual and historical aspects of bone-collecting if you want to.

Personally, I steer clear from bone fetishism or using my bones as tools. I don’t flaunt skulls to guests as a status symbol or use them as seasonal decor. I’d never drink wine or serve candies out of a skull, because that’s super impolite in my book. Also, you’re risking the ingestion of bio-hazardous human remains or noxious chemicals. The ethics of bone collecting definitely extends into display and use, and it’s something that you ought to reflect on.

Bone collecting isn’t a new concept. It’s been done for centuries, and I don’t think legislation could ever make it impossible or extinct. People have done it for wholesome reasons, and others have done it for really barbaric purposes. As a concept, it’s currently at a pretty weird place in our cultural framework, where it’s equal parts trendy fad and offensive horror.

Is collecting bones the right thing to do? Honestly, I’m still not entirely certain. I’ll probably never know, but I’ll keep working on it.

Ultimately, I want my own bones to be used for medical education, and my collection to be left to a museum. What I do know is that the bones of people are powerful and beautiful things, and if for no other reason than what I’ve learned, I’m so glad I started this journey.