Sunday, July 02, 2006


The problem with writing a column in which I dispense advice is that occasionally I find myself in the position of giving advice that could result in negative consequences for the person seeking guidance.

Making a sound ethical choice is the best route to take, even then, but I'm not keen on directing readers to take action that could result in criminal prosecution. The least I can do, I figure, is to alert them to the potential pitfalls they could face in setting things straight.

I recently received an e-mail query from a reader that places me squarely in the position of knowing what the ethical thing is for her to do to resolve her issue, while also knowing that doing the right thing could land her in a heap of trouble.

Her story is that, back in the early 1960s, when she and her soon-to-be husband -- now her ex -- were dating and in college, she noticed that he had a skull in his apartment. He told her that, in his freshman year, while wandering through an old cemetery he had come across an unmarked mausoleum, the door to which had rotted off. Inside were broken wooden caskets and bones. He took a skull.

"Fast-forward through our marriage and our divorce," she writes, "and I got `custody' of the skull. It sits to this day on my bookshelf."

Through some research, my reader discovered that the skull had belonged to someone who died in the mid-19th century.

"I have taken care of it and carried it with me on every move," she writes, "although it did have one unfortunate fall and broke the lower part of its upper jaw. Now what?"

She would like to return the skull to its rightful place, but the mausoleum door has been sealed off with cinderblocks. To institute official inquiries might lead to the restoration of the skull to its proper place, but it would risk getting her ex in trouble for something he did 40 years ago, which she doesn't want to do.

In short, she finds herself in a real quandary.

There's no question that the right thing to do is to return the skull so that it can be reunited with the rest of the skeleton. That's clear enough.

Grave-robbing is not only morbid, however, but also a felony. Cemetery law varies from state to state and is murky enough that it's unclear if the statute of limitations on the theft has passed, according to Robert Fells, general counsel for the International Cemetery and Funeral Association,which is reachable at

"The right thing to do is to return it," Fells says. "Going by the book, a crime was committed. The person's best course of action would be to hire a knowledgeable attorney in that jurisdiction who might question whether immunity can be granted from prosecution for the return of the skull."

An attorney may also be able to tell the reader if he or she can keep her identity confidential, based on attorney-client privilege.

The return of the skull will create many challenges for the cemetery, of course, among them verifying whose skull it was, re-opening a sealed mausoleum and notifying any family members who may still be around.

"All it does is open up a can of worms," one director of a different cemetery told me. "Literally."

Even if the cemetery staff might wish otherwise, however, there's no question that the right thing to do is to return the skull so that it can be reunited with the rest of the remains and the issue can finally be, so to speak, laid to rest.

That it may be difficult for my reader to accomplish this does not lessen her obligation to do it.


Anonymous said...

Graves and mausoleums are for the benefit of the living...not the dead. The condition of the mausoleum indicates there was noone left to honor the dead within. Her care of the skull over the years shows more regard for the deceased than was recieved from an anonymous and neglected burialplace.

Anonymous said...

Mr. Seglin:

In regards to your skull quandary that appeared in The Charlotte Observer on 07.02.06, the federal government and probably all states have what is known as the Statute of Limitations that might apply here. This statute, generally, provides that if someone who commits a crime (other than homicide) and is not charged, indicted, or prosecuted within a certain time frame, then he/she cannot be charged/prosecuted for that particular crime. Therefore, depending on the time frame in the state where the crime occurred , the ex-husband might not be prosecuted for the "grave robbing" if he did it beyond the number of years stated.

However, the querent may not be so fortunate. While she didn't do the primary crime she knew of it and continued to keep and maintain the skull and, also, by not returning it to the proper authorities she may have committed a separate crime. The following applies only if grave robbing is a felony in the state where it occurred. Another statute probably all states have on their books is the statute of Subornation of a Felony. That is where someone has information about a felony, received anything from the crime, and/or the identity of the person who committed it but hasn't advised authorities. This could apply to the lady in question, and particularly if it's presented to a stuffy prosecutor.

Both these statutes could apply, and both could not, depending on their wording and the wording of the statute covering the crime of grave robbing. All of which would be controlled by the law of the state wherein the crime was committed--the venue, to be technical.

Morton C. Nickell

"They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety." Benjamin Franklin

Anonymous said...

Re "The Case of the Stolen Skull" - the simple solution would be for the lady to return the skull to the cemetery, place it on or by the mausoleum, maybe with a copy of your column - and forget it! If it were me I 'd be inclined to deposit it in the nearest garbage can!

Rue Smith, Orange, Ca.