My dearest table rappers:
This Week: The Dramatic Retelling of an Extremely Online (AND EXTREMELY MACABRE) Bone-Tok Scandal!
Have you heard about this recent Tik Tok dust-up??? Social media scandals are like tempests in teapots that sometimes bubble up into mainstream media, and when they do, it gets wild. And this story is FUCKING NUTS.
At the center is JonsBones, a company in New York that sells HUMAN BONES. JON advertises his shit on TikTok, where he makes cute millennial friendly videos about human bones, osteology, and anatomy against a backdrop of plants and cats – it’s all very Brooklyn – but also cases of skulls, “long bones” and an entire goddamn wall of spines.
THE SPINE WALL is what got the party started. People do not like the spine wall! It’s balls-creepy and dehumanizing and gross and just some basic serial killer looking shit. Jon’s attitude toward the backlash seems to be that we’re all a bunch of squares and mean boomers who don’t see how cool the bones are, and his mission is to destigmatize bones. To quote Rachelle from ICYMI, “perhaps the bone trade should be stigmatized.” YES, PERHAPS!
Users began demanding to know where these bones came from, since Jon’s Bones refers to themselves as “responsible” and “ethical” purveyors. Well, it turns out they come from India, Russia, and China. Is that ethical or responsible? China and Russia are authoritarian states where human rights abuses abound, and India has a lot of poor folks in dire conditions. Jon himself acknowledges that a lot of the bones from the dalit, the lowest caste of people in the Indian social hierarchy. They’re marginalized folks who may have been forced by poverty to sell a loved one’s body or simply had it stolen.
The original source of the bones is somewhat mitigated by the fact that they’re – FOR LACK OF A BETTER WAY OF EXPLAINING IT – used. They’ve been pre-owned. You know, like a Lexus. According to Jon, these bones were already in commercial circulation here in the United States. He says that the inventory comes from bones formerly used in teaching or science environments, and implies that they would have been thrown out or collecting dust in an attic if he hadn’t put them back on the market. That’s a very different thing than buying bones on the current (gray) market, and it does give his account more nuance.
Jon says that he’s putting these bones back into circulation so that scientists, doctors, and whoever else can use them for educational purposes. Which I’m not sure I buy. The spine wall and the baby skulls and casual oat-milk-foam-ossuary-lite vibe tells on itself. It feels very oriented at consumers, by which I mean collectors. And that’s gross. The trade in human remains has always had a yuck factor that kept it in the dark and disreputable corners of the internet, and no amount of pastel neutrals and trendy web fonts is going to change that. In fact, I don’t think it should. I think you should feel sketchy and weird about purchasing human bones for personal use because that is sketchy and weird.
But Court, IS IT ILLEGAL? As with most things, it depends. Law Professor Tanya Marsh told ICYMI that in the US, human remains are in a kind of gray area between property and rights-holding-beings. Caitlyn Doughty describes remains as “quasi-property.” No one really owns them, and their use is restricted. Jon told his TikTok audience that there are no federal laws against owning bones, which Marsh says is technically correct, however, laws relating to burial and property are the purview of the states. And every state in our nation has laws on the books prohibiting “abuse of a corpse” that cover a broad range of actions, including reducing a human skeleton into component parts.
Some of you may remember a similar case from 2015, when a dubious witchcraft practitioner got caught selling human bones that she “found” in a cemetery in Louisiana. In all American states, however, you can’t find bones – you can only steal them. The dead have a right to undisturbed rest and when you fuck with them, including picking up lil’ metatarsals you found after a flood, you’re opening yourself up to an appearance on Cops. Which is exactly what happened – the Internet told on her, and the DA charged her with a crime.
And look, Jon’s Bones and the Bone Witch didn’t invent this game. Grave robbers, body snatchers, resurrectionists, medical students, prison wardens, doctors, and slave owners started this jam way back when. There’s a long history of using the bones of marginalized people – poor, disabled, conquered, enslaved, convicted – to make a buck.
The body trade started when the study of medicine became more scientific, creating a demand for cadavers to study. British and American law forbade dissection of anyone except criminals, which, while in high supply, were not enough to meet the demand. Body snatchers began digging up graves and bribing hospitals for fresh bodies. In the infamous case of Burke and Hare, the body snatchers actually murdered people to sell their corpses. After this horror show, the UK passed the Anatomy Act, which allowed for legal dissection. Two years later, it passed the Poor Laws, which opened workhouses across the country – asylums of last resort for the poor – and authorized them to sell the bodies of their inmates for a profit.
When that supply was not enough, they turned to India. The East India Company opened a body transport business out of Kolkata, taking the plentiful dead (thanks Empire!) and using local labor to process and preserve the skeletal remains before shipping them to the UK. That practice continued until 1985, when India banned it.
Here in the US, medical students fought over the corpses of convicted men and women who died on the gallows. Benjamin Franklin had a basement full of bones that he buried lest he be caught dissecting illegally. Enslavers squeezed even more money out the human beings they owned by selling their remains to local doctors and medical schools after they died. These are the shoulders upon which the modern bone trade stands.
I say this a lot on this channel and it bears repeating: how we treat the dead tells us about the living. There are always going to be some pick-me’s in the mix who argue that this is technically not illegal and it doesn’t matter because the people are dead. Those are certainly elements of the debate, but the fact remains that even in death, we rely on the most exploited and marginalized among us to do the dirty work.
The origin of these bones is in human beings, and it’s relevant. That’s why the SPINE WALL caused a collective retch on the Internet. No one wants their Nana’s spinal column strung up like Christmas lights for TikTok clicks. But for most of us in the United States, that’s not likely to happen – these are someone else’s bones. Some disposable people from halfway around the world, most likely. At any rate, you can think bones are cool and encourage people to embrace mortality and be as goth as your little heart desires, but I’m cool with keeping the trade in human remains, you know, stigmatized.
Until next time!