A TikToker is selling human bones — people are questioning whether it is ethical.
Jon Ferry is the founder and CEO of JonsBones. He calls the company a “leading provider of medical human osteology” and claims the bones are “responsibly sourced.” On the website, he sells human bones ranging from $20 to over $6,000. While one can understand why the medical field would benefit from the study of human bones it does raise questions. Some wonder if Ferry’s human remains are truly ethically sourced. While others note that the human bone trade often utilizes remains from indigenous people or people from the developing world who have not consented.
What is human osteology?
Human osteology is the scientific study of the structure and function of the human skeleton.
Who is Jon Ferry, AKA @jonsbones?
Ferry became inspired to get into the field of osteology when he was a kid after his father showed him a mouse skeleton. He attended the Parsons School of Design. He later founded JonsBones to destigmatize osteology which he claimed was “associated with the concept of death” and considered “taboo.” The company aims to provide human bones to anyone from educators to artists.
Ferry’s bone collection
However, his explanation didn’t seem to quell the concerns of many TikTokers.
“The question […] isn’t about the legality of the situation, it’s more about the morality,” the user @ibraheem_ma responded in a video. “Because whether you purchased the bones, or whether they were donated, or whether they were obtained through some other means, the question on everyone’s mind is still: Whose bones are those? Why do you have them? Why were their bones available for purchase and/or trade?”
Sápmi creator @the_northernskald noted that Ferry sold remains of Sápmi people who are indigenous to Scandinavia. The description also included a slur in reference to the group.
“I’m curious on where you got the skull from because if the skull is from where I think it is, it should be returned so it can go through proper channels and be buried properly here, in Sápmi territory. It is not ok for you to have a remain like that,” they said. “It’s highly illegal, disgusting and disrespectful to the Sápmi people”.
Is the human bone trade ethical?
In the 1700s, U.K. medical schools required skeletons to teach students. As a way to circumvent laws the banned grave robbing, most of those remains came from India. Soon after India became the source of much of the West’s human bones. However, the country banned the export of human remains after a dealer was caught selling 1,500 child skeletons. Many believed that traders were murdering or grave-robbing to retrieve the bones. China then took over the trade until it banned the export of human bones in 2008.
However, there is still a thriving underground market where human remains are acquired by nefarious means and sold around the world. Many people believe bone collectors and sellers like Ferry encourage these unethical practices by creating unnecessary demand.
In the U.S. today the trading and selling of human bones is legal with the exception of a few states. The selling of Native American remains is completely illegal under the Native American Graves and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA).
However, human remains can be ethically sourced in the medical field when they are donated with the consent of the person.
Ferry responds to backlash
Ferry admitted that most of his bones come from India, China and Russia. He said much of his collection came from India from people of the lower castes who were deemed to be society’s “untouchables.”
“The fundamental problem is that over the past 100 years, over 60,000 skulls have been shipped to Europe, the U.K. and America and there is nobody to claim responsibility for it,” Ferry said.
Many people are unsatisfied with Ferry’s rationalization because there are more ethical paths for medical professionals to acquire bones in 2021.
“I think what @jonsbones is doing is highly unethical,” Assistant Anatomy Professor and Bioarcheologist Robyn Wakefield Murp said in a video. “Human remains should never be sold. There are legitimate, ethical ways for institutions and researchers to obtain human bodies for research and that is through cadaveric donation programs.”
The controversy is giving internet veterans flashbacks to Tumblr
According to Mashable, the backlash reminded some longtime internet historians about an alleged bone thief who called out for stealing remains from Louisiana cemeteries and selling them in an incident that is now known as “Boneghazi.”
It was subsequently dubbed the “last good meme” of 2015. Every internet generation will have its own bone controversy, it seems.
“The Tumblr bone thief is an example of what I abhor and try to combat within the industry,” Ferry told Mashable. “We work to preserve osteology so that future generations can learn from it. These pieces are not decoration, they are teaching tools and serve a very important purpose.”
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