My sophomore year of college, I took a physical anthropology class. One day about halfway through the course, I walked in and noticed black footlockers placed at each table. I unfastened the locks of the trunk before me and opened the lid. The classmates in my group craned their necks. A full but disassembled skeleton lay inside, its skull nestled in the center among femurs, phalanges and a ribcage.
Our professor gave us a brief skeleton ethics tutorial. “No messing around. No pretending to make the skull into a talking puppet.” Then we opened our books to a section that elicited snickers around the room: “How to sex a skeleton.”
Over the weeks, I used calipers to measure orbital breadth and jawlines. I examined teeth and counted cusps. I trained my eye to see a woman’s wide innominate — to facilitate giving birth — versus a man’s narrow hip bone.
A few years would pass before I learned the ugly underside of these studies. Anthropology as a discipline in the western world had a cozy friendship with proponents of eugenics, racism and imperialism. Studying bones became a way to confirm the alleged superiority of white people of European descent. Not cool.
Nonetheless, the discipline of anthropology persists. My professor, Dr. David Glassman, was a forensics expert, most often studying bones to identify remains related to crime and accidents.
The day of our final exam, the bones from one trunk were removed and stationed on the tables, numbered. We walked the tables in shifts, stopping at each bone, matching numbers with names. 1. Clavicle. 2. Humerus. 3. Tibia.
The last bone on the zinc countertop was small and round, shaped like an irregular teardrop. A knee cap. “20. Patella,” I wrote.
That’s when I had an epiphany. It could have been a vertebrae or a tooth or a mandible. But it happened to be a patella that brought me to this moment: I had a near-identical replica underneath the very knee upon which I stood. A teardrop-shaped disk of calcium phosphate and collagen. And so did everyone in the room. And so did every human on the earth. And so did virtually every homo sapien to walk the earth, ever.
This meant something to me. It still does. I can’t say it proved anything or made something right about the world. I only know that it felt big and special — a concrete, material connection I could not deny.
Yesterday, bones came up at work. My coworker at Tyler Public Library told me that the order of Odd Fellows — a social group whose mission is, among other things, “to improve and elevate the character of mankind by promoting the principles of friendship, love, truth, faith, hope, charity and universal justice” — used to keep skeletons in their lodges as a memento mori used during initiations. Look upon this and remember that we, too, will die someday. Supposedly, Odd Fellows members would sometimes donate their remains to their local lodge for this very reason.
There is a remnant of an Odd Fellows Lodge in downtown Tyler on West Erwin Street, a sign hanging from the second floor of a building just past Bois d’Arc Avenue painted a cheery red. The Tyler chapter has apparently disbanded. The building’s windows say it houses William Tell Lodge 27 and the Rebekah Lodge 142. There are several listings nearby including Athens and Carthage, but Tyler is no longer among the peer chapters in the Odd Fellows directory.
Which leaves the question: Could there be a skeleton lurking in Tyler’s cheery red building? If so, who could claim it and provide a burial or otherwise honorable way to handle the bones? My coworker suggested we make a pull-out-all-the-stops tea party and seat the skeleton as the honored guest.
What could we learn about the human who once fleshed out said skeleton? An examination of teeth, jaw size, orbital breadth and hip width might tell us the sex, ethnicity and diet. But it could not tell us who the person loved, their favorite smell, the song that would place a lump in their throat.
But if such a skeleton exists, I would pause to note that smallish, lopsided disk between the femur and the tibia. The patella. The one that looks almost identical to mine.