Q&A with Miles Tolbert
3 steps to heed if human remains are found on construction site
Q: Here's an eerie question, with Halloween coming: What should employers do if what appears to be human remains are discovered on a construction site?
A: There are three key things to remember. You should stop working, because Oklahoma law requires that any person discovering what might be human remains to immediately cease any activity which could cause further disturbance to the remains. Next, you should take steps to ensure that neither your workers nor anyone else touch the area where the body or skeleton was found. It is a felony to allow any person, other than a law enforcement officer, mortician, medical examiner or archaeologist, to disturb human skeletal remains. You should consider placing barriers or tape around the area and securing the discovery spot at night. Finally, you must report what you find to law enforcement within 48 hours. Failing to make such a report is a felony.
Q: What are the applicable laws?
A: Although there are federal statutes that apply in certain cases, Oklahoma has crafted its own set of laws to address the discovery of human remains. Oklahoma Statutes Title 21 §1168.4 contains several provisions that govern what people can and cannot do when they uncover skeletal or other human remains.
Q: How common is this?
A: In a comparatively young and rural state like Oklahoma, discovering a human skeleton during construction is fairly uncommon, but it does happen. Just this past summer, Oklahoma Natural Gas workers found human remains while working near Shawnee. I personally became interested in the subject 10 years ago, when utility workers found skeletons while digging a trench behind a house on my block in Heritage Hills. As you can imagine, it caused a lot of excitement in the neighborhood until it was finally determined that the bones had been buried there decades before by a physician who taught anatomy to medical students.
Far more common than the discovery of actual human remains is the discovery of bones that people think are human but in fact belong to a horse, cow or other large animal.
Q: What happens with the remains?
A: Once notified, the law enforcement agency contacts the chief medical examiner to determine whether the body was part of a crime. If the conclusion is that foul play was not involved, the chief medical examiner notifies the state archaeologist and the state historic preservation officer, who are to determine whether the skeletal remains are directly connected to an existing tribal group. If so, tribal leaders are consulted to determine a culturally appropriate form of final disposition. If the state archaeologist finds no link to tribal groups, the body is reburied in a public cemetery.
PAULA BURKES, BUSINESS WRITER