Intended for healthcare professionals

Editorials Christmas 2019: Let it Be

Skeletons in the closet: towards the dignified disposal of all human bones acquired for medical education

BMJ 2019; 367 doi: (Published 18 December 2019) Cite this as: BMJ 2019;367:l6705
  1. Jonathan Coman, student1,
  2. Anne-Maree Kelly, emergency physician/professor2,
  3. Julian Savulescu, director/professor3,
  4. Simon Craig, emergency physician/professor4
  1. 1Haileybury College, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia
  2. 2Joseph Epstein Centre for Emergency Medicine Research, Western Health, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia
  3. 3Faculty of Philosophy, Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics, Oxford, UK; Melbourne Law School (honorary), University of Melbourne
  4. 4Department of Paediatrics, School of Clinical Sciences, Monash University, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia
  1. Correspondence to: S Craig simon.craig{at}

Human bones have long been used for education in medicine, but in modern times this is unnecessary and hard to justify, argue Jonathan Coman and colleagues

Your family is preparing for Christmas. While searching through the cupboard for decorations, you discover an old box. It contains human bones, prompting a battery of questions from the children: Is that a real person? Who? Why are the bones here? What will happen to them? You have few answers.

In this editorial we call for an end to the use of human bones for educational purposes and urge authorities to develop and disseminate legal and ethical pathways for the dignified disposal of any remaining “skeletons in the closet.”

For hundreds of years, grave robbing and body snatching supplied human remains for anatomy students.1 Into the 20th century, medical students were encouraged to acquire human “bone sets,” often sourced from developing countries. India was a major source, until export bans commenced in 1985 because of concerns about grave robbing.2 However, evidence shows a persistent illegal trade …

View Full Text

Log in

Log in through your institution


* For online subscription