Two years ago I posted a simple statement about selling and buying dead people. I come back to this now in support of fellow TikTokers who are speaking out about creators who are not only posting videos showing them handling and talking about human remains in problematic fashions, but using their videos to promote the international trade in human remains, with links to their online shop. The specific case in question, as challenged by Steph (@archthot) is the creator JonsBones, but there are clearly a vast number of individuals and organisations including anatomy museums and body farms, who do not perceive the grossly unethical nature of such online businesses and their uses of social media.

In this context: I present a simple stark message here. I fully support the legal donation of human remains for medical research. I also advocate for the investigation of past mortuary practices, including human remains, as a key dimension of archaeological research into the human past and human mortality where ethically appropriate and with due consultation with relevant stakeholder communities. This is, however, not at odds with a robust stance with the British Association for Biological Anthropology and Osteoarchaeology against the trading and sale of human remains. To read about BABAO’s stance and useful resources, follow this link.

Steph’s videos started it all and make clear, critical points:

Also, check out Sian’s equally robust response here from a heritage professional working in a museum context:

@celtic_sian

#stitch with @jonsbones proper uncomfortable with this especially as unclear where they’re sources/provenance of them

♬ original sound – Siân

Sacha makes key critical points about jonsbones working practices too.

All credit to Laura’s posts too:

@osteolaurgy

Reply to @poorlyplannedcars let’s try to respect those who cannot advocate for themselves. @jonsbones #archaeologytiktok #anthropology #osteology

♬ original sound – Laura Ni Conchobhar

Dr Robyn Wakefield has made an entire series:

@bonesandbotany85

@osteolaurgy @jonsbones my take on private collections of human remains and selling bones for profit Part I

♬ original sound – Robyn Wakefield Murp
@bonesandbotany85

Part II – my take on private osteological collections and sale of human remains @osteolaurgy @jonsbones

♬ original sound – Robyn Wakefield Murp
@bonesandbotany85

Part III – why private osteological collections and sales of human remains are unethical @osteolaurgy @jonsbones

♬ original sound – Robyn Wakefield Murp
@bonesandbotany85

Part IV – ethics and the human body trade @jonsbones

♬ original sound – Robyn Wakefield Murp
@bonesandbotany85

@jonsbones Part V of my take on sale of human bones

♬ original sound – Robyn Wakefield Murp

Fortunately, big creators are joining in with the criticism in a clear, fair and insightful way, as with the wonderfully sincere Pahari:

And while I have a far smaller following on TikTok, I feel it is important I add my voice in their support:

@archaeodeath

#stitch with @archthot Don’t support the international trade in human remains! #archaeology #bones #bonetok

♬ original sound – Archaeodeath
@archaeodeath

Reply to @archaeodeath More on the trade in human remains via social media #bonetok #archaeology #humanremains

♬ original sound – Archaeodeath
@archaeodeath

There r many ways to explore & learn about the beauty & stories of human bones without unethical private collecting #osteology #bonetok #archaeology

♬ original sound – ollie
@archaeodeath

Are you the bad guy? Don’t sell, buy and play with real human remains on social media folks! #archaeology #bones

♬ original sound – Kal El of Krypton
@archaeodeath

My faithful trowel – Edgesniffer – is far less forgiving of online idiots than I! #archaeology

♬ naughty wackus bonkus – king of bling

It is to be commended how Steph, Sian, Sacha, Laura and Robyn use their social media platforms to deploy their expertise and robustly challenge such starkly unethical practices. Likewise, so many others are adding their objections through their comments and thus joining a chorus to combat this unethical (and in elements also illicit) trade.

But how do we move forward to combat this problem together?

Well, at the very simplest level: please do not follow or support the trading in human remains, but also do not represent or handle human remains in a fashion that commodifies and fetishises them.

TikTok and other social media platforms have tremendous educational potential for discussing human anatomy and human mortality as well as in telling the story of the human journey from earliest times. In doing this, sometimes images of human skeletal remains, mortuary contexts, memorials, monuments and funerary landscapes are incredibly helpful, and sometimes essential. Having said that, I’ve posted 100s of videos on the app since May 2020 without showing human remains and never handling them!

Also, please don’t think of me as being a puritanical kill joy. I’m not adverse to dark and grisly content on TikTok and other apps. Equally, the use of humour and light-hearted content to deal with such serious subjects is fine by me. However, with an iota of care and consideration, this can all be done in a respectful and contextualised way with clear effort and sensitivity to religious and cultural groups.

Moreover, none of this educational content on social media requires the trade in human remains or encourage the collecting of human remains. Anyway, hypothetically speaking, even if one were trading in human remains with extensive ethical policies in place, one would certainly wish to avoid using human remains to bolster one’s own online persona, to simply try and afford oneself with a quasi-emo vibe, to sell the bones themselves or market other commodities through their mobilisation, and/or to present diseases and death as a freak-show and gore-fest for clicks, likes and thus monetisation. All of this is a nest of unethical horrors and we must all work to call it out and challenge it when we come across such behaviours.