By Thomas A. Parmalee

Michael Burns, the dean of faculty and students at the Pittsburgh Institute of Mortuary Science, knew there were unidentified human bones sitting in storage. He just never realized how many.

When it was discovered that 24 skulls and over 800 bones were sitting in the institution’s basement, it became evident that something needed to be done.

“We don’t know when the bones started to arrive,” he said. “The bones could be from the 1940s, the 1950s or the 1960s. We could have inherited them from somewhere else. We have no record where they came from.”

The bones included two full skeletons, with the other bones being an assortment of anything you can think of: smaller bones from the hand – some wired together and some not – tibias, femurs and various other body parts, Burns said. “We are not anthropologists, but they seemed to be mostly adults,” he said. “The skulls seemed to be fully developed.”

Regardless of where they came from, there they were, in metal boxes, and it only became clear how many there were when PIMS recently took an inventory of items.

“Then we thought, ‘This is a shame, that they are collecting dust,’” Burns said. “No one had touched them in 10 years. I went to school here 35 years ago, and I did not know they existed.”

The bones were not abandoned, however: They were stored in a nice area in clean metal boxes. “These bones provided lessons for students,” Burns said.

But the more Burns and other faculty members at PIMS thought about it, the more they had a feeling of unease … it just didn’t feel right.

“These are the remains of human beings,” Burns said. “Even though we had no idea where they came from, we knew they did not belong in the basement.”

Dr. Barry Lease, president and CEO of PIMS, agreed, so he presented the issue to the board and said the institute needed to make it right.

The board gave the staff its blessing to spend the funds necessary to provide the bones with a proper burial, Burns said.

Michael Burns

A Teaching Moment

PIMS, however, did not simply cremate or bury the bones and call it a day, however. The faculty used it as a teachable moment – one where the remains could provide students with a final lesson.

“We did not want to opt for cremation, because we did not know what religion they were or what they believed in,” Burns said, referring to the remains.

Separate committees of students were formed as PIMS gave the bones the sendoff they deserved, and the entire funeral service community rallied around the idea, with Haven Line Casket donating a nice 20-gauge sealer casket.

Henderson Funeral Homes, which is owned by the father of a PIMS student donated several hundred dollars. And Jefferson Memorial, Cemetery, Funeral Home and Crematory really stepped up.

“We went to Jefferson Memorial Park, and they donated a space, including a vault and an opening and closing – it was totally free,” Burns said, noting the funeral home also donated the use of its chapel. All told, the donation was worth over $4,000, he said.

Even with everyone rallying around the institute, however, the PIMS board still spent several thousand dollars to make sure the bones got the burial they deserved and that students were given a final lesson in the process, Burns said.

“There was a clergy committee, and a committee for the cemetery,” Burns said. “There was a committee for pallbearers and one focusing on veterans organizations.”

Students on each committee did a stellar job – for instance, the casket committee engaged in outreach to get the casket donated, and the cemetery committee reached out to the cemetery, Burns said.

The day before the funeral ceremony, which was Nov. 22 (the day before Thanksgiving), PIMS held a visitation at the school, which lasted about four hours, Burns said. “Really the only people who visited were the students, but they signed the register book and took a prayer card. We had flowers there. Students swung by after class it paid their respects.”

There were some moments, however, where PIMS was not sure how to proceed.

“We contacted the state of Pennsylvania to ask about the permit, but they said there is no permit to give … and they wrote a letter, which we presented to the cemetery,” Burns said.

The bones all fit snugly in a single casket and were buried in a full-size casket in a full-size plot, Burns said. “The bones were put in a body bag and zipped up,” he said.

A rabbi, Lutheran minister and Catholic priest each came and said a few words, Burns said. A PIMS student who is Muslim also said a prayer. Since the institute did not know the religion of the various people whose remains were being buried, it wanted to be sure a multitude of faiths were represented, he explained.

“I also said a few words – how these bones provided a final lesson and how we did the right thing,” Burns said.

After the service in the chapel, the remains were brought straight to graveside, as the cemetery and funeral home are on the same property. “There, we had a bagpiper pipe us in and pipe us out, and we had a brief graveside prayer,” Burns said. “A veterans service organization played taps and folded the flag, which was presented to our president and CEO, Dr. Lease.”

Students – about 125 of them – attended and then ate a box lunch. “It was very well attended,” Burns said, who noted that PIMS did not seek to get any press to attend the service.

“We thought about press coverage, but that is not what we were after,” Burns said. “We could have done that, but we were not looking for fanfare. For us, this was about providing proper dignity to the deceased, and the students felt the same way.”

He added, “While this was overdue, now we feel good because they are in the right place – in a casket and buried in a public cemetery.  These bones provided a final lesson which is how to properly bury them and make arrangements for a funeral.”

Burns expressed his appreciation to everyone who stepped up to help PIMS do the right thing while providing students with a lesson. “Once we explained what we were doing, no one hesitated – everyone jumped right on board as they knew it was the right thing to do,” Burns said.

There is still some work to do, however.

“Our next step is to see if we can get a marker,” Burns said. “We want to see if we can get a good price. We are not sure what we will write on the marker … maybe we will say ‘Known only to God,’ but we do not want to get too religious. But we need a phrase to tell what is buried there.”

Burns knows the students at PIMS will remember the final lesson the bones taught them for the rest of their lives.

“When something needs to be done, it takes lot of work, a lot of energy, and sometimes lot of time, but if it is the right thing to do, you have to do it,” Burns insisted. “We could have taken these bones and put them in a biohazard box and forgotten about them, but we did not want to do that. We could have mass cremated them and thrown them in a box somewhere.”

In the end, however, the PIMS faculty and the students knew that was not the right thing to do, and Burns is pleased that everyone came together to give the remains the final tribute and burial they deserved.

Follow on LinkedIn.

Follow on Twitter.

Follow on Facebook.

Leave a Message

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *
Comment *
Full Name *
Email Address *

Related Posts

Visit regularly to get the latest insights on the profession.

Learn from the past, look to the future and optimize business operations with the insights on