Skeletons in the closet: disposing of human skeletons causes medico-legal concerns

Photo by Mathew Schwartz on Unsplash

29 October 2018

The MDU is occasionally asked for advice from doctors and their relatives about how to appropriately dispose of real human skeletons.

Medical students now use plastic replicas of skeletons in their studies, but up until thirty or forty years ago it was common for those studying medicine to use a real human skeleton. This can lead to a dilemma when doctors and their relatives literally find a skeleton in the closet and wonder how to dispose of it.

The MDU is occasionally asked for advice from doctors and their relatives about how to appropriately deal with human remains. However, strict rules about their disposal means skeletons can't just be sold on like any other unwanted item. For example, auction site eBay says it doesn't allow the sale of human body parts, skulls or bones regardless of whether or not they are for medical use.

Legal rules on disposal

The Human Tissue Authority (HTA), whose remit is defined in the Human Tissue Act 2004, regulates the following activities through licensing:

  • post-mortem examination
  • anatomical examination
  • public display of tissue from the deceased and
  • the removal and storage of human tissue for a range of purposes, including research, medical treatment, education and training.

This legislation and the HTA's guidance codes need to be considered when dealing with human remains such as skeletons.

The HTA recommends that the disposal of bones is done sensitively. This can either be by separate incineration (separate from other clinical waste), possibly accompanied by a simple but respectable ceremony, or burial. Doctors considering burial would be advised to consult local burial authorities to establish what kind of services they may provide. A local licensed mortuary may also be able to provide guidance. Details of licensed mortuaries can be found on the HTA website.

Gifting skeletons to medical schools

Another option is to donate a skeleton to a medical school for teaching future doctors. The HTA licences and inspects organisations, such as medical schools, that use body parts to teach students and train healthcare professionals. Therefore, provided that the medical school holds the appropriate HTA license, they could accept a human skeleton previously held in storage for a 'scheduled purpose' such as education or training relating to human health.

The HTA Codes have more information on this.

Giving a skeleton to another student

Some doctors may wish to give the skeletons to another medical student rather than donate to an HTA licensed training establishment. This is also allowed if the primary purpose of use and storage by the medical student is for private study, and the relevant material is not being stored at the medical school. In this case, neither the student nor the medical school would need an HTA licence for the skeleton.

If, however, the student wanted to bring the skeleton to medical school for use as a teaching aid during tutorials, the skeleton would be being used for the scheduled purpose of training and education and therefore the school would need to be HTA licensed, if they weren't already.

Selling skeletons

Under section 32 of the Human Tissue Act, it is an offence to take part in commercial dealings in 'controlled material'. Controlled material in this context is material consisting of or including human cells (excluding gametes and embryos) that is removed from a human body for the purpose of transplantation.

A person guilty of an offence under section 32 can face imprisonment and/or a fine. However, the HTA's remit does not extend to the selling or purchasing of skeletons.

MDU advice

Any doctor considering disposing of a human skeleton should bear in mind that a key principle on which the Human Tissue Act is based is that all bodies, body parts or tissue should be treated with respect and dignity.

Doctors should be mindful that in the handling of all human bodies and tissue, the need to maintain dignity and respect is paramount, and that (for example) advertising a genuine human skeleton online for use as a Halloween prop could draw criticism. As mentioned above, many of the platforms for selling goods, such as online auction sites, may ban the sale of human remains regardless of the purpose for which they are being advertised.

This guidance was correct at publication 29/10/2018. It is intended as general guidance for members only. If you are a member and need specific advice relating to your own circumstances, please contact one of our advisers.

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