Skeletons in the Closet: How to manage the legal and ethical issues presented by the private possession of human skeletal remains.

Mr Jonathan Coman1

1Monash University, Clayton, Australia

For much of last century, privately owned human skeletons were used for the study of human anatomy. Sets of human bones could be purchased legally in Victoria until the enactment of the Human Tissue Act 1982 (Vic) and in other jurisdictions at around the same time. These remains were often sourced from international suppliers who obtained bones illegally and without the consent of the deceased. There are estimated to be thousands of sets of human bones in the private possession of medical professionals in Australia. Replica bones are now cheap and suitable educational alternatives, so biological bones are no longer an essential tool.

This presentation will describe research quantifying the prevalence of privately owned human bone sets, discuss the attitudes and experiences of medical professionals in possession of skeletal remains, clarify the legal status of human bone sets, and investigate the ethical issues presented by their continued possession and disposal.

The research also presents a framework for the legal and ethical relinquishment of bones, considering coronial processes in all Australian jurisdictions and the practices of anatomy schools. It will provide guidelines for medical practitioners seeking to dispose of bones in their possession.


Jonathan Coman is a student at Monash University studying a Bachelor of Laws and Global Studies, specialising in human rights. He has a particular interest in bioethics and international humanitarian law. Beyond his research and studies, Jonathan has a keen interest in advocacy and community legal work.

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