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introduction

C U T TO TH E B O N E

W hen Geza Uirmeny decided to take his own life, he turned


to a blade. Precisely what was tormenting the seventy‑
year‑old Eastern European shepherd is a secret kept by his remains.
The tiny placard affixed beneath his toothless skull in a cabinet of
wood and glass at downtown Philadelphia’s Mütter Museum doesn’t
say whether it was financial stress, heartache, or any of the other
painful circumstances of human life that led him to choose his own
way out. But the postmortem grin formed by his jaws speaks to what
happened next.
What Uirmeny didn’t know when he raised the cutting edge to
his neck was that part of his throat had transformed to bone. This
happens to everyone to a greater or lesser extent. The flexible carti‑
lage of your larynx—the ringed tube that gives you that distinctive
part of yourself, your voice—slowly but surely starts to change as
you age, rigid bone cells growing in place of the more pliant flesh.
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Uirmeny’s tissues were a little more ambitious than most. As he


swiped the blade across his neck, he met unexpected resistance. His
larynx had been so transmuted that it formed a bony strut in his
neck; in the more clinical terms of the Mütter Museum’s signage,
“Wound not fatal because of ossified larynx.” That little note doesn’t
record what Uirmeny felt when he realized his failure, but the scar
that must have formed on his neck was a mark of a happier ending.
Uirmeny, the display says, “lived until 80 without melancholy.” Bone
saved Uirmeny’s life.
The lucky herdsman’s skull is one of 139 in the Hyrtl Skull Collec-
tion exhibit, the last resting place for dozens of people who perished
during the second half of the nineteenth century in Central and
Eastern Europe. Each skull has its own story, recounted in a passive
voice shorthand that makes the collected tales swing between the
somber and the tragicomic. There’s the bony grin of Francisca Sey‑
cora, a nineteen‑year‑old Viennese prostitute who died of meningi‑
tis, next to that of Veronica Huber, a woman executed for murdering
her child. They share the space with rail workers, fishermen, ban‑
dits, soldiers, and the unidentified dead, as well as a few stranger
cases. There’s the cranium of Andrejew Sokoloff, a member of an
extreme religious sect who died following the order’s dire require‑
ment of self‑emasculation; and the skull of Girolamo Zini, a twenty‑
year‑old tightrope walker who, the museum’s deadpan delivery tells
us, “died of atlanto‑axial dislocation (broken neck).”
These crania aren’t the only bones in the Mütter’s expansive and
historic collection. In addition to housing slices of Einstein’s brain
and larger‑than‑life replicas of every eye injury imaginable, which
sympathy pain prevented me from giving any more than a sideways
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glance, the Mütter Museum is home to the towering skeleton of the


Mütter American Giant, the remains of a woman so tightly corseted
for so long that the garments changed the very structure of her
bones, and dozens of other people whose final act is to educate the
rest of us about what lives inside. This is a place populated by the
remarkable dead, a medical mausoleum with a nineteenth‑century
aesthetic that would make a Victorian‑era anatomy student feel
right at home. There’s more than a touch of the gothic about the
rows of cases, not to mention a sinister feeling that you, too, might
have been eyed for an exhibit had you lived during the museum’s
heyday—anatomists of old would often let their ethics slip if it meant
acquiring another remarkable specimen for their cabinets. These
bones have taken on a second life, and that’s part of the story as
much as the lives stripped down and presented among the cases and
shelves. Every bone in the collection embodies a tangle of stories
leading from the present back through history, and deeper still
through the millions of years of evolutionary assembly that made us
into our present and still‑changing form. In each skeleton, whether
that person was privileged or poor, healthy or afflicted, there are
stories of varied and resilient life.
Admittedly, I hadn’t paid very close attention to human bones
before my visit to the Mütter that cold February morning. My affec‑
tion for bones had its origin in paleontology.
I lived just an hour from the Mütter for most of my life, and I al‑
ways promised myself I’d visit at an unspecified sometime. When I
found myself with enough time and cash to visit a museum, though,
I’d always opt instead to go north on NJ Transit to visit the hulking
frames of dinosaurs and other prehistoric oddities in Manhattan’s
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American Museum of Natural History. Petrified bones of all shapes


and sizes fascinated me, even more glorious raised and reconstructed
in their life positions.
That enduring affection led me to settle in the American West,
where I spend weeks out of each summer helping museum and uni‑
versity field crews dig up fragile bones that throw open windows to
lost worlds. It’s difficult work. Out in the desert, science is a matter
of stomping around crumbling outcrops in search of pieces of pre‑
historic lives that have miraculously survived to the present, using
pick, shovel, brush, and plaster to uncover and cradle old bones
before using whatever strength you can muster to drag them out of
their natural tombs. All that manual labor offers plenty of time to
think, of course, and the endless stream of questions that bones in‑
spire helps those wracked with fossil fever endure sunburn, gnat
bites, dehydration, and cactus needles that seem to know the exact
weak spot of your boots.
What was this creature? What did it look like? How did it move?
What did it eat? These are puzzles that can be answered through
bone. Each element has stories to tell, a record of the organism’s life
wrapped up in its skeleton. To the paleontologist, bones are not grim
visages of death. Skeletons are biological time capsules that tell us
of lives we’ll never see in the flesh. A tooth. A string of vertebrae.
An osteoderm that once acted as bony armor inside the skin. These
were all living tissues that had to grow and were constantly changing
within the bodies of the animals they once belonged to. Even the ti‑
niest, most boring fragment of unidentifiable Chunkasaurus gradu‑
ally turning to powder beneath the unforgiving sun is a vestige of a
life come, gone, and preserved for a span of time that’s impossible to
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truly understand. It’s difficult to push away thoughts about life while
facing death. This is as true for us as it was for Tyrannosaurus.
Gently, insistently interrogating the remains of long‑dead crea‑
tures makes every tidbit of information drawn from their skeletons
a treasure. We don’t get to see them in life, so bones are most of what
we have. (Tracks and traces form a supplement to the skeletons.)
The entire paleontological discipline is based on resurrecting the ex‑
tinct, if only in our minds.
With our own bones, though, the connection flips. We intimately
experience life and are familiar with all the squishy tissues that skel‑
etons support. With the knowledge of the living, then, the meaning
of human bones is often pulled inside out. A skull is a death’s‑head,
reminding us of what awaits us all. “As I am now, so will you be. As
you are now, so once was I.” That’s what human skeletal remains re‑
peat to us over and over again. Just think of where we see skeletons
and skulls around us. A skull and crossbones marks the menacing
flutter of the Jolly Roger. A similar symbol warns us we’ll die if we’re
careless about what containers we drink from. Heavy metal album
covers are rife with skeletons, as are the ranks of fictional villains,
from Skeletor to the bony army in The 7th Voyage of Sinbad. Tat‑
tooed onto my left forearm, a werewolf grips the skull of one of her
victims in an anthropomorphic memento mori. Even Death itself
comes to us as a robed skeleton. One of the few positive cultural as‑
sociations with skeletons we seem to have is the Mexican Dia de los
Muertos, a holiday when sugar skulls and other osteological adorn‑
ments help keep the living in touch with the memory of those who
have left us. But that’s largely an exception to our modern relation‑
ship with bones. While prehistoric remains represent life resurrected
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and reassembled, we often think of our own bones as potent sym‑


bols of the afterlife and what misfortune may come to snatch us
away into it.
Still, deep down, we can’t escape the fact that bones are the most
vital of structures.