Here's Why You Can't Keep Your Loved One's Skull

hayatikayhan/iStock via Getty Images
hayatikayhan/iStock via Getty Images

Even if showcasing your grandfather’s skull on your living room mantle is the type of offbeat tribute he absolutely would have loved, your chances of making it happen are basically zilch. Mortician Caitlin Doughty explains exactly why in her new book Will My Cat Eat My Eyeballs?: Big Questions From Tiny Mortals About Death, excerpted by The Atlantic.

Having written permission from dear old Gramps stating that you are allowed to—and, in fact, should—display his skull after his death simply isn’t enough, for two reasons. First of all, most funeral homes lack the equipment required to decapitate a corpse and thoroughly de-flesh the skull. Doughty admits that she doesn’t even know what that process would entail, though her best guess for a proper cleaning involves dermestid beetles, which museums and forensic labs often use to “delicately eat the dead flesh off a skeleton without destroying the bones.” Unfortunately, the average funeral home doesn’t keep flesh-eating beetles on retainer.

The second hindrance to your macabre mantle statement piece is a legal matter. In order to maintain respect for the dead, abuse-of-corpse laws prevent funeral homes from handing over corpses or bones, but the terms differ widely from state to state. Kentucky’s law, for example, prohibits using a corpse in any way that would “outrage ordinary family sensibilities,” but leaves it entirely open to interpretation how an “ordinary family” would behave.

Sometimes, of course, it’s relatively obvious. Doughty recounts the case of Julia Pastrana, who suffered from hypertrichosis, a condition that caused hair growth all over her face and body. Her husband had her corpse taxidermied and displayed it in freak shows during the 19th century as a money-making scheme—a clear example of corpse abuse. Since the laws are so ambiguous, however, funeral professionals err on the side of caution.

Funeral homes also must submit a burial-and-transit permit for each body so the state has a record of where that body went, and the usual options are burial, cremation, or donation to science. “There is no ‘cut off the head, de-flesh it, preserve the skull, and then cremate the rest of the body’ option,” Doughty says. “Nothing even close.”

If you’re thinking the laws sound vague enough that it’s worth a shot, law professor and human-remains law expert Tanya Marsh might convince you otherwise. As she told Doughty, “I will argue with you all day long that it isn’t legal in any state in the United States to reduce a human head to a skull.”

The laws about buying or selling human remains also vary by state, and are “vague, confusing, and enforced at random,” according to Doughty. Many privately sold bones come from India and China, and, though eBay has banned the sale of human remains, there are other ways of procuring a stranger's skull online “if you are willing to engage in some suspect internet commerce,” Doughty says.

[h/t The Atlantic]

Archaeologists Uncover Infant Remains Wearing Skulls of Older Children

© Sara Juengst
© Sara Juengst

Archaeologists in Salango, Ecuador, recently uncovered two infant skeletons buried with "helmets" made from the skulls of older children, Gizmodo reports.

The discovery is the first of its kind, researchers write in a paper published in the journal Latin American Antiquity. To date, the Salango discovery presents the only known evidence of ancient people using juvenile skulls as burial headgear.

The two burial mounds where the skeletons were uncovered date back to about 100 BCE. It's likely that the skull "helmets" were cut and fitted to the infants' heads while the former were "still fleshed," the researchers write. One infant, estimated to be about 18 months old at the time of death, wears the skull of a child between 4 and 12 years old. The “helmet” was positioned so that the wearer looked “through and out of the cranial vault,” the paper reports (the cranial vault is the area of the skull where the brain is stored). The second infant, which was between 6 and 9 months old at death, is fitted with the skull of a child between 2 and 12 years old.

Images of infant skeletons covered with the bones of older children found in Ecuador
© Sara Juengst

But why? The archaeologists involved in the discovery aren’t totally sure. Ash found near the burial site suggests that a volcano may have impeded agriculture, leading to malnourishment and starvation. The skull helmets could have been an effort to offer the infants additional protection beyond the grave. It’s also possible, though unlikely, that the children could have been sacrificed in a ritual to protect the community from natural disasters. That’s less probable, though; none of the bones show any evidence of trauma, but they did show signs of anemia, suggesting that all four children were sick at their time of death. Researchers hope DNA and isotope analyses can offer more information on the discovery.

Whatever the reason is, it’s important not to judge with modern eyes, lead author Sara Juengst told Gizmodo. “Our conception of death is based in our modern medical, religious, and philosophical views,” she said. “We need to think about things in their own context as much as possible and try to keep our own prejudices or ideas about 'right/wrong' out of the analysis.”

[h/t Gizmodo]

Maine Man Catches a Rare Cotton Candy Lobster—For the Second Time

RnDmS/iStock via Getty Images
RnDmS/iStock via Getty Images

Just three months after a cotton candy lobster was caught off the coast of Maine, another Maine resident has reeled in one of the rare, colorful creatures.

Kim Hartley told WMTW that her husband caught the cotton candy lobster off Cape Rosier in Penobscot Bay—and it’s not his first time. Four years ago, he caught another one, which he donated to an aquarium in Connecticut. While the Hartleys decide what to do with their pretty new foster pet, it’s relaxing in a crate on land.

Though the chances of finding a cotton candy lobster are supposedly one in 100 million, Maine seems to be crawling with the polychromatic crustaceans. Lucky the lobster gained quite a cult following on social media after being caught near Canada’s Grand Manan Island (close to the Canada-Maine border) last summer, and Portland restaurant Scales came across one during the same season. You can see a video of the discovery in Maine from last August below:

According to National Geographic, these lobsters’ cotton candy-colored shells could be the result of a genetic mutation, or they could be related to what they’re eating. Lobsters get their usual greenish-blue hue when crustacyanin—a protein they produce—combines with astaxanthin, a bright red carotenoid found in their diet. But if the lobsters aren’t eating their usual astaxanthin-rich fare like crabs and shrimp, the lack of pigment could give them a pastel appearance. It’s possible that the cotton candy lobsters have been relying on fishermen’s bait as their main food source, rather than finding their own.

While these vibrant specimens may look more beautiful than their dull-shelled relatives, even regular lobsters are cooler than you think—find out 25 fascinating facts about them here.

[h/t WMTW]

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