Remember the Tumblr witch who stole human bones from the “poor man’s graveyard” in New Orleans? That was six years ago. Feel old yet?
Now it looks like the discussion around whether it is ever legal—or moral—to own and sell human remains has found a new home: TikTok. In the eye of the hurricane is Jon Ferry, founder and CEO of JonsBones, self-described “the leading provider of medical human osteology.”
The New York-based website sells authentic human bones “for the purpose of education and understanding”: the cheapest items, bones and ribs, are under $20, with entire human skeletons sold for as little as $6,350.
Ferry has amassed 460,000 followers on the app since first opening his profile, @jonsbones, in February 2020. Aside from taking tons of adorable videos of his cat, Ferry posts incessantly about his extensive human bone collection. In addition to the supply of skulls, he has a literal wall decorated with human spines, which he calls “his pride and joy.”
Ferry’s company prides itself on providing “responsibly sourced human osteology” and the TikToker himself has said where all these bones come from—and noted that he regularly gets asked whether he’s a grave robber.
Up until the 1960s, Ferry told his followers several times, the demand for human skeletons was amped up by the fact that many medical and dental schools required students to own their own skeleton in order to study human osteology.
“Before the 1920s, this was very problematic,” the TikToker writes on his company’s blog. “Due to the lack of people donating their bodies to science, there were few cadavers available for dissection or skeletonization. This led to many instances of grave robbing and even the creation of a whole trade called ‘resurrectionists’ who procured bodies for anatomists and medical students. These actions, while morally dubious, represented a great need for legally acquired skeletons.”
After the 1920s, the medical bone trade was taken up by a handful of companies that obtained human bones from disempowered countries, such as India and China, that shipped skeletons to Europe and the U.S. where they would be studied without paying much attention to who they belong to in the first place.
All of the bones acquired by JonsBones, according to the founder, have been passed on by the descendants of doctors and dentists who did not want to keep literal skeletons in their attics and basements. Ferry said the bones are now being given a new purpose: providing “endless knowledge and inspiration for designing products, teaching future doctors and artists, and educating the everyday person.”
Ferry states that everything he does is completely legal because in the U.S. there is no federal law prohibiting the ownership, sale, or possession of human osteology, and he’s not wrong. However, a few states—Louisiana, Georgia and Tennessee—ban it outright.
There’s also a blanket ban on selling Native American remains under the Native American Graves and Repatriation Act, the only local regulation on the matter that covers how human remains can be obtained or carried over state lines. Incidentally, this almost complete deregulation turned Instagram into a flourishing market for human bones after Etsy and eBay banned such sales in 2012 and 2016 respectively.
For fellow worried TikTokers, though, it’s not a matter of legality. In April 2020, a Twitter user pointed out that “the weirdest part of tik tok is that there’s a guy with a collection of human spines and no one seems to think its weird.” Now plenty of people are starting to take notice—and they don’t seem to be on board with Ferry’s reassurances.
“When somebody asks you why you have so many bones and where you got them and you answer ‘don’t worry, it’s completely legal, there is no regulation on this,’ that’s not a very reassuring answer,” wrote user @ibraheem_ma, in a video with over 55,000 likes. “The question on everyone’s minds is still… Whose bones are those? Why do you have them? Why were there bones available for purchase and trade?”
“There are kids’ skeletons in here! I just saw a listing for a ‘pediatric skull’…how is that OK?” user asked @SamScoopCooper on Twitter, after scrolling through the JonsBones’ website. “A kid can’t consent to giving up their body for science and I doubt the parents did it with the intent it would end up being sold online for $5,600.”
Other troubling finds include the skull of someone affected by dwarfism. “I am very apprehensive that the skull of someone with a genetic mutation was obtained ethically considering the history of abuse of disabled individuals,” the user pointed out.
Indigenous creator @the_northernskald also posted screenshots from the website advertising the sale of a skull belonging to a member of the Sápmi people, who inhabit the northernmost lands of Scandinavia. The skull, shown in the screenshot, included a tag with a slur used by European for the Sápmi people. “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,” he wrote. “It’s highly illegal, disgusting and disrespectful to the Sápmi people”.
Other TikTokers have added that the dubious origins of the bones are far from the only icky behavior Ferry has displayed on the app. “[Three] months ago he gave away a real human skull to gain followers, and we’re only starting to question the ethics of his collection/business NOW?” asked user @bloodbathandbeyond, duetting one of Ferry’s videos in which he did set up a skull giveaway. Ferry has since deleted the original video.
In his latest post addressing the origin of his collection, Ferry acknowledges that many of the skeletons coming from India most likely belonged to people from the lower castes and that “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 … Our goal is to make osteology more accessible for everybody, to raise awareness about the bone trade and to destigmatize a stigmatized industry.”
It’s unlikely that this reply alone will appease the people raising concerns. As for the Tumblr witch before it—and perhaps in a less performative way—this round of bone discourse is steeped in a series of deep ethical questions that can hardly be resolved on a platform that limits itself to short videos.
Anthropologists have spent years grappling with the ethical implications of working with collections of bones that used to belong to racist scientists. Archeologists are debating whether they should just let the skeletons of ancient generations rest in peace; the issue has its own thorough Wikipedia page.
A South African university reburied 11 skeletons they were using for medical studies after they discovered they had been unethically obtained. Hiding behind the legality of it to keep selling bones for thousands of dollars will most likely not cut it.
Ferry did not immediately respond to the Daily Dot’s request for comment.