We're arguing about the human bone trade again, folks.
A TikTok creator's controversial collection of bones has the internet once again debating the morality of buying and selling human remains. The issue is oddly specific, but the discussion isn't new — Tumblr veterans will remember having this exact conversation in 2015.
Human bone collector and distributor Jon Ferry built a TikTok following of nearly 457,000 for his videos sharing facts about human anatomy, showing viewers how forensic anthropologists use bones in their research, and displaying his (literal) bone-chilling collection of human remains. Ferry's pièce de résistance, which he refers to his "pride and joy," is a corner stacked floor to ceiling with human spines. His cat Chonk occasionally makes an appearance.
Since first posting in early 2020 under the username JonsBones, Ferry has established himself as a voice of authority in all things bone-related. In one video, he shows how forensic anthropologists use evidence of jaw deterioration to determine a person's age at death. In another, he demonstrated how forearm bones twist around each other when a person moves their arm.
The backlash started last week when Ferry responded to another TikTok user wondering if they found human bones in their wall. Ferry assured the user that the spine-like bones they found weren't human, and showed what a real human vertebrae looks like. Panning the camera across his spine wall, Ferry then recommended that viewers familiarize themselves with human anatomy as spines are the most commonly found remains in the wild.
"Why do you have so many bones..." one TikTok user commented. "HOW DO YOU HAVE SO MANY BONES?!??"
And in the U.S. there is no federal regulation on the ownership, sale, or possession of human osteology, so it's completely legal.
In the video replying to that comment, Ferry explained that he works with osteology, which is the study of the human skeleton and its functions. Osteologists work in forensic osteology to aid in investigating crime scenes, or in archaeology to interpret ancient ways of life based on surviving human remains. It's worth noting that Ferry himself is neither an anthropologist nor a forensic osteologist, but a buyer and distributor of said human remains. His company, also named JonsBones, sells these remains to osteologists and medical institutions.
"And in the U.S. there is no federal regulation on the ownership, sale, or possession of human osteology, so it's completely legal," Ferry said in his video explaining how he owns so many bones.
Reply to @itsmeteddybear05 Hey everyone nice to meet you! Feel free to ask any questions you might have any comments I’ll take the time to answer it!♬ Somebody That I Used To Know (feat. Kimbra) - Gotye - french onion dip
But the flippant way Ferry explained the legality of his company's medical osteology trade alarmed some TikTok users. One commented that if they wanted to donated their body to science only to end up in a collector's possession, they'd be "pretty mad." Others noted that legality can't be equated with morality, and some questioned how Ferry could guarantee that the remains were "ethically sourced" if he had no way to trace its origins.
"Those were people," TikTok user wasianbarbi3 commented. "Not rocks to collect. Have respect."
In another video, Ferry admitted that many of remains in his collection come from China, India, and Russia, and were likely that of very poor people, particularly of lower castes. He added that the remains were cleaned in India before Western companies bought and distributed them to private collectors. Ferry said his company's goal is to source what's left of those remains from private collectors and "put them back" into the medical community, but his inventory's origins only further stoked the outrage. The tag #jonsbones has nearly 4 million views on TikTok as of Wednesday.
I can assure you the only thing I am digging up is my houseplants for repotting.
"People seem to think I am out there, shovel in hand, digging up bones myself and then selling them on the internet," Ferry said in an email to Mashable. "I can assure you the only thing I am digging up is my houseplants for repotting."
Some TikTok users drew similarities between Ferry's collection and another human bone scandal that shook the internet a few years ago.
The uproar was all too reminiscent of the infamous Tumblr bone thief who was exposed for allegedly stealing human remains from Louisiana cemeteries and selling them. In what became known as "Boneghazi," a Tumblr user shared a screenshot of a Facebook post by Ender Darling, who was known on Tumblr as littlefuckinmonster. In the Facebook post, Darling said that after rain, human bones resurface at the "poor man's graveyard" near their house, and they had been using the remains for witchcraft. They floated the idea of selling "leftover" remains from their monthly bone heists.
Boneghazi scandalized and thoroughly entertained Tumblr users, who dubbed it the "last good meme" of 2015. Darling, however, committed a felony, and in 2016 their home was raided by law enforcement for trafficking human remains.
TikTok's backlash against Ferry and his company, reminded users of Boneghazi. The app's affinity for absurdist memes and hotheaded social commentary is already similar to that of Tumblr's during Tumblr's golden age, and the renewed discourse over trading human remains only emphasized that sentiment.
TikTok users stitched Ferry's video with references to Supernatural, the book "The Fault In Our Stars," and TARDIS merchandise — nods to the mid-2010s pop culture that dominated Tumblr. Another TikTok creator joked that the "Tumblr veterans tried to warn us" that the app is just Tumblr reincarnated and now it's circled back to the "great bone debate." One stitched Ferry's video with audio from Taylor Swift's "Exile," in which the singer croons, "I think I've seen this film before, and I didn't like the ending."
In an email to Mashable, Ferry clarified that his company JonsBones does not deal in anatomy taken from "gravesites, catacombs, ossuaries, or anywhere other than the medical bone trade." What Darling did is "grave robbing," which is "completely unacceptable," Ferry continued, and is not comparable to what JonsBones does as a company.
"These pieces are not decoration, they are teaching tools and serve a very important purpose."
"The Tumblr bone thief is an example of what I abhor and try to combat within the industry," Ferry said. "We work to preserve osteology so that future generations can learn form it. These pieces are not decoration, they are teaching tools and serve a very important purpose."
Though the bone trade is legal, it's fraught with unethical practices that rely on exploiting the poor after death. In the United States, bodies donated to science aren't likely to become cleaned and bleached for skeletal display, but rather preserved and used by medical students for their studies. India is the primary source of human remains for medical study, and although the country banned exporting them in 1986, the black market today thrives on grave robbing. Online retailers like Etsy and eBay didn't ban the trade of human remains until 2012 and 2016, respectively, but determined individuals can still buy bones from Instagram accounts and Facebook groups. Facebook began cracking down on the trade of human remains last year.
In an email to Mashable, Ferry said that before the medical bone industry was standardized, medical education relied on worse practices like grave robbing. And before medical schools provided their students with skeletons, the students were responsible for purchasing them themselves. Ferry said JonsBones sources its inventory from retired medical collections and private collectors.
"The students who had to purchase these pieces for their studies are now retiring and dying with literal skeletons in their closets," Ferry continued. "We try to make sure these bones do not get forgotten or misused, by using them to educate, and working with institutions to provide their students with these pieces."
Despite the legality, and according to Ferry, altruistic motivation behind JonsBones, others are concerned that the bones will just end up in the hands of private collectors rather than medical schools.
Lady Izdihar, a historian and ethnographer who specializes in Eastern European studies, also has a fascination with the macabre, and collects oddities like animal vertebrae and preserved leeches. She does not collect human remains. Most curio shops, she noted in a TikTok, will provide "immense information" on a remains' origins and backstory. She questioned Ferry's respect for the remains he's selling since JonsBones doesn't appear to provide much information.
Lady Izdihar added that since Ferry can't confirm where the bones are from and to which ethnic groups they belonged, there's no way to ensure that their remains aren't being laid to rest according to religious or cultural customs. Bones of Muslims, for example, must be laid facing Mecca.
We have a great appreciation for beauty after death and we want to know as much as we can.
"People who actually collect these things," Lady Izdihar continued, holding up her preserved leech in a glass jar. "We name them, we love them, we have a great appreciation for beauty after death and we want to know as much as we can."
Those buying from JonsBones, she alleged, may not share that desire for understand or deep respect — especially since the company doesn't appear to sell inventory exclusively to medical schools.
Regardless of the backlash, Ferry hopes to continue using his platform to educate viewers.
"Because I am one of the more visible people in the industry, I understand why people might direct their concerns with fringe parts of the bone trade that even I don't condone towards me," he concluded. "I welcome dialogue about the bone industry, and truly believe that the more we talk about it, the more we all benefit."
Time on the internet is a circle — and so are the online arguments birthed in it.