To Be Or Not To Be: The Turbulent Relationship One Has With Growing Up Possessing A Skull

In my last blog post, I began to discuss Fortunes Bones and the ethical issues I have personally struggled with as someone whose father possess a skull from his time in dental school. I feel that there is a need to clarify that although I may have made it seem like there was normalcy to growing up with a skull in my house, that this has not in fact been the case. Having a skull in our home has led me to deal with many of the ethical dilemmas we have discussed in class regarding consent when using another’s body for medical education. There have been times in the past where I was comfortable with our possession of the skull and believed that it afforded myself and others a great opportunity to learn from. There have also been times, however, where I was seriously uncomfortable with our possession of the skull; not only can it be unsettling to live with what was once another person’s head, but also it can be bothersome to live so intimately with it when you don’t know its full story.

My peak of my discomfort with my family’s possession of the skull came during a Shakespearean literature class during my sophomore year of high school. I had always questioned the morality of having a person’s skull, even if it was in the name of education. I had always been comforted though in believing that there was a high likely hood that the skull had been purposefully donated by its former owner. That whoever they use to be, that they were no longer the skeleton they left behind. However, after reading Hamlet and the to be or not to be scene, in which Hamlet ponders suicide while holding Yoricks skull, I became unnerved by the possession of the skull. After related in-class discussions on mortality, death and learning outside of class that a large amount of unclaimed bodies became cadavers, changed my opinion on the skull. I began to see it on a more human level and started to feel that the moral issues regarding the possession of another’s head outweighed the arguments for keeping the skull for educational purposes. This, along with the constant reminder of death it presented, got so bothersome that I asked my father to remove the skull from our home. He understood what I was going through and brought it to his office where it stayed for almost two years.

A few months into my senior year of high school, my father and I were talking when I brought up the topic of the skull. I expressed that I still felt discomfort not knowing whose it had been nor whether this person consented to their body’s use in such a way. My father responded by explaining that he and others in his class also had struggled with these feelings but that they were in a situation where they just had to use the skulls; the best they could do was to handle the bodies they had with respect as if they were handling a living person. He talked about how during his residencies there were multiple patients who did request for their body be donated and that it was not unlikely that ours was donated also. He did validate though that my concerns could be true and that the person who it belonged to very well might not have wanted their body donated if it had been unclaimed.  He said the solution to this was similar to how Nelson talks about Fortune’s skeleton as not defining him as a person and that one is not their bones. That the best course of action is just to respect the body no matter what and not to assume anything about its intended use or former owner.. Our discussion continued and in the end we didn’t have total closure on the issue, but I felt that the way he approached the situation was the most appropriate course of action and this allowed me to be fine with the skull up until the begging of this class.

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