Island County officials contemplate skull in trash
By JESSIE STENSLAND
Whidbey News Times Assistant editor
August 14, 2011 · Updated 6:39 AM
Island County public works officials are going to clarify policies regarding solid waste handling after an employee found a human cranium in the trash and stuck it on a pole, upsetting a member of the public.
Island County Coroner Robert Bishop verified that the cranium — a skull without the mandible — is indeed human. He said it has a serial number and marks that indicate it was a “teaching model” once used in schools or medical offices. He said it doesn’t appear to be ancient or Native American.
Nowadays, skulls and other bones used for medical instruction are synthetic. But Bishop said up to about 20 years ago many of the skeletons used in classrooms were real and usually came from India, which banned the export of human remains in the mid-1980s.
As a result, Bishop said it’s not that unusual for skulls or skeletal teaching models to show up at a garage sale or in the garbage dump, though it’s technically illegal to throw human remains in the trash. State law provides that remains should be “decently buried or cremated.”
Steve Marx, assistant director of public works, explained that an employee at the solid waste transfer station near Coupeville spotted the cranium in the trash stream and pulled it out on July 30. The man placed it on top of a nearby pole or “stanchion.”
“He thought that it was plastic at first,” Marx said.
A citizen, however, saw the skull and became upset, feeling that the act was disrespectful. Staff members investigated and, realizing it might be an authentic skull, called law enforcement. The coroner responded, concluded that the remains are non-forensic and took custody of the cranium.
Marx said public works officials are conducting an investigation to find exactly what happened after the bone was found and if discipline or additional training might be warranted. He said they are also working on a new policy to clarify how employees should respond if they find suspected human remains.
“It should be treated like it was a homicide scene,” he said.
While this was the first time remains were found at the county transfer station, Marx said it’s much more common in Seattle or other large cities.
Bishop said the cranium likely belonged to a “smaller-stature female.” He will turn the cranium over to a state forensic anthropologist for a second opinion on its origin. Bishop said it will probably return to Island County and he’ll have it buried in an unmarked grave.
“I don’t care where it came from, it’s still a person,” he said.
Bishop urges anyone who happens to possess any skeletal or other human remains to contact his office and not throw them in the trash or try to hawk them at a yard sale.
“We want to make sure they are dealt with in a respectful manner,” he said.
Contact Whidbey News Times Assistant editor Jessie Stensland at firstname.lastname@example.org or 360.675.6611 ext. 5056.