If you spend anywhere near as much time on TikTok as I do, you may have come across Jon Ferry, the bone collector. Which sounds just about as insidious as it actually is, tbh.
Jon, whose TikTok account is @JonsBones, is a product designer and a human bones enthusiast, and he’s been copping a lot of attention recently for his massive fucking real human spine collection. Obviously, people think it’s creepy and weird, but more importantly, people think it’s unethical – and that’s why I’m here, writing this explainer.
Because Jon here, our little bone enthusiast, actually buys human bones from either old medical professionals or bone traffickers, and then sells them back to the public in the name of education and making osteology ‘accessible’, whatever that means. And if you’re eyebrows are raised at that, you aren’t the only one.
My “my prized human spine collection is perfectly legal” shirt has people asking a lot of questions answered by my shirt. pic.twitter.com/SagfNa8jep
— Wagatwe Wanjuki 🇰🇪 🇧🇸 (@wagatwe) August 12, 2021
He’s perky and cute and regularly features cute cats in his little “educational” videos, and for some that makes him likeable, even if the whole thing is a little odd. Others, like myself, see his commodification of human bones (which are largely procured through unethical and illegal means) as incredibly problematic, and that’s what we’re going to dive in to today.
This isn’t just a quirky story of some random edgy guy who likes skulls. The industry JonsBones is built off is actually steeped in a *lot* of ethical ambiguity, with many TikTokers calling out the ties bone trafficking has with white supremacy and racism.
Buckle up, because unpacking why this whole thing is actually super weird and problematic is definitely a wild ride.
First, let’s set the scene on who exactly JonsBones is
Jon sells bones to make them “more accessible” to those who want to study osteology or have an interest in human anatomy. He’s based in New York City, is a product designer, and started the company with the help of his parents. It’s really important to note that he isn’t a medical professional, or even a medical student.
He is a private collector of bones, with a keen interest in the profits of bone selling, and the reason that’s important is because it seems a lot of people are under the impression that he works or studies in an anatomically relevant profession.
The bones are not even sold exclusively to the medical community, but are open to collectors or artists who also have an interest in anatomy and for whatever reason, want to own someone’s human remains.
It’s also important note that we shouldn’t be fooled with buzzwords such as “accessible” or “educational” which soften the bone trade as something pioneering research. That’s just a classic example of co-opting progressive language to soften the rough edges of this trade. The skulls cost around $2500, so who exactly are they accessible for? And why do we need more people to buy human remains?
“oh it’s completely legal”
“JonsBones does not ship to states where it’s illegal to ship or own human bones” pic.twitter.com/tNkadW6bpX
— PastelWitch???? (@apastelwitch) August 12, 2021
Bone collecting isn’t just a quirky hobby
One of the key issues at hand here is there is a really sinister history to the bone trade which JonsBones neglects to acknowledge and respect.
To give you a quick TLDR, the modern day bone trade was birthed in body-snatching, which is something the JonsBones website mentions in its section on the ethics of bone trading. Body-snatching was the practice of stealing corpses from graves and then selling the corpses to anatomy students and the medical industry for study, and it’s been around since the 1700s at least.
What people in general tend to forget though, is that body-snatching was rooted in anti-Blackness. Body-snatchers in America targeted Black graves, and most corpses stolen, dissected and studied were of Black people, both slaves and those who were free. Due to racism and the dehumanisation of Black folk, medical institutions routinely stole and abused the bodies of Black people, and encouraged their executions so they could claim the bodies for science.
There’s a quote from a 1787 petition where Black people said body-snatchers “under cover of night…dig up the bodies of the deceased, friends and relatives of the petitioners, carry them away without respect to age or sex, mangle their flesh out of wanton curiosity and then expose it to beasts and birds.”
This context is really important to understanding why people are so disturbed about Jon’s human bone collection – the practice of privately collecting human bones isn’t quirky or cute. There is an element of racism, voyeruism and the dehumanisation of marginalised people that has led to the bones being acceptable to trade in the first place.
There’s no real assurance that the bones are procured ethically
So, now that you know bone collecting as a hobby is rooted in racism, you’re probably wondering if Jon’s bones are collected ethically? Unfortunately, there is no clear answer.
If you go to the main page of his official website, it says “all of our bones are sourced from the medical bone trade. They are legally procured and certified by a forensic anthropologist.”
The thing is, the medical bone trade is not ethical, not just because of the history we outlined and the fact that these stolen bones are still in circulation, but because in modern times, poor and marginalised group are often financially pressured into giving up their bodies over to science – a decision they may not have made otherwise.
Legally buying items from someone who didn’t ethically procure them doesn’t actually make that purchase ethical.
Reply to @ragingdumpsterfire_
The website also says the bones are sometimes procured from the private collection of scientists who are retiring – but again, this doesn’t mean the bones were initially ethically procured.
Jon’s instagram FAQ section skates around questions on where (or who) exactly the bones are from, which is concerning because many of his bones are sourced in India – which actually ended its legal bone trade in 1985 because so many of the bones were taken without the informed consent of their former owners, and in violation of national laws.
One of the skulls Jon is selling belongs to an Indigenous Sami person, and the ethics of that are, well, fucked.
There is a history of colonisers grave-robbing Indigenous people and stealing their bodies for osteological collections or “science” regardless of the beliefs and wishes of said Indigenous people. This is something we’ve seen here in Australia, where fights to return Aboriginal bodies to rest are ongoing.
A Sami Tiktoker by the username @the_northernskald commented on the fact that Jon is selling an Indigenous skull, calling it disgusting and disgraceful, and saying that the moral responsibility here is to return the skull to the Sami community so it can have a proper burial.
With that in mind, there’s something incredibly icky about a hip New York City designer that profits off buying the bones of predominantly marginalised people and then selling them to a historically racist medical body.
It begs the ethical question, who gets to profit off POC’s bones? Who has the right to own and sell them? Why do we allow the commodification of Indian, Black or Chinese bones, which are only in the trade due to overarching class and racial violence, as something acceptable and trendy?
Let’s not forget that these bones belonged to actual people
The collection of bones will always be rooted in racism and white supremacy, because it’s these ideologies that have allowed us to dehumanised POC to the point where we think having their bones displayed in our houses is artistic rather than barbaric.
There’s tonnes of literature and think pieces on the voyeuristic way some (usually white) people parade Black and brown bodies as though they are animals, or something alien to be admired, taken apart, studied and fetishised.
Black, Indigenous and other ethnic bodies are not props for art, they are not objects to be pillaged and dissected by anyone, they are not exhibitions to be consumed and sold. They belonged to real people who were victimised, and we shouldn’t be okay with the private trade of these bones, which people have no ethical right to procure, in an industry built on racism and violence.
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