Conor Gearin recently wrote an article for The New Scientist entitled "Hundreds of mystery human skulls sold on eBay for up to $5500."
The article begins:
A morbid market. Staffers at the Louisiana Department of Justice in Baton Rouge tracked the sale of human skulls on eBay for seven months. During that period, 237 people listed 454 skulls for sale, with opening bids ranging from one cent to $5500.
Until last week, eBay’s official policy as stated on its website was that it doesn’t allow the sale of human remains, with two exceptions – “items containing human scalp hair, and skulls and skeletons intended for medical use”. However, sellers could say that skulls were for medical use without proving it, and still sell them as curiosities, says Tanya Marsh at Wake Forest University in Winston Salem, North Carolina.
Following the study’s publication, eBay recently changed its policy to ban sales of all human body parts except hair.
On average, the opening bids were about $650. Skulls described as pathological – coming from someone with a disease – went for similar prices as other skulls. Specimens cleaned and articulated for teaching started at about $50 more, though.
You can read the rest of the article here.
I checked eBay today and the policy appears to be working - no listings that appear to be for real human skeletons or skulls appear. However, it is still pretty easy to purchase human remains online.
Skulls Unlimited currently lists 115 products in the category "Real Human Skulls & Skeletons" including 23 human skulls with most prices in the $1,250 - $1,850 range. A full human skeleton is offered for $5,200. Skulls Unlimited won't sell human remains to just anybody:
In order to honor the donors who have graciously made this material available to the educational community, Skulls Unlimited will only place these specimens with medical or educational professionals such as college professors, teachers, doctors, nurses, dentists, physical therapists, occupational therapists, respiratory therapists, dental assistants, optometrists, x-ray technicians, ultrasound technicians, crime scene investigators, and lawyers.
The Bone Room currently offers approximately 50 human skulls, including 15 skulls from fetuses, infants, and children under the age of 7. You can buy a 4 year old child's skull for $3,500, FYI. But don't worry, The Bone Room says that this is all perfectly legal:
Human Bone Laws & Information - In short, it is perfectly legal to posses and sell human bones in the United States. There are a few exceptions to this: a few states have banned import and export, and of course, all archaeological resources protected by the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act.
Readers are urged to visit the site's "Bone FAQ" page, which offers additional information:
In short, there is no law at the U.S. Federal level prohibiting you from having a human bone in your possession. The fact that some people believe there is or believe there should be such a law is irrelevant.
This is not to say that such laws do not exist in other countries, or at the local level. For example, three US states, New York, Georgia & Tennessee, all have independent State Laws prohibiting the import or export of human remains across their state lines. While we work hard to remain current, laws are passed worldwide faster that the human mind can track or comprehend, so you must be responsible to know your local laws before ordering.
We work within the framework of U.S. Federal, California State, and International Treaty Law. Within these jurisdictions, there are no prohibitions on the sale or possession of human bones.
The Bone Room's FAQ is somewhat correct—there are few laws in the United States that explicitly prohibit the possession and sale of human bones. But that is because the law doesn't distinguish between intact human remains and human bones. The bigger problem that the sellers of human bones have (particularly since both Skulls Unlimited and The Bone Room have pages on their sites offering to purchase human bones) is that there is no way in the United States to legally transform intact human remains into human bones.
When a person dies in the United States, the state must be informed and a death certificate issued. Prior to final disposition of the remains, another certificate, usually called a burial and transit permit, must also be issued by the state. There are particular rules regarding the treatment and disposition of those remains. For example, in no state is it permissible to transform intact human remains into a skeleton. The Bone Room specifically references California law in its FAQ, presumably because it is located in California. It may be interested in this California law:
“Except as authorized pursuant to [§§ 7054.6, 7116, 7117, and 103060], every person who deposits or disposes of any human remains in any place, except in a cemetery, is guilty of a misdemeanor.” Cal. Health & Safety Code § 7054.
I'm not their lawyer, but that statute doesn't seem consistent with the idea that it is "perfectly legal" for them to possess human remains in California.