Pittsburgh-area couple makes a living selling the dead | Crain's

Pittsburgh-area couple makes a living selling the dead

  • A taxidermied bearded dragon is among the many formerly live products sold by Mz. Jones' Curiosities, owned by Neil and Britney Jones of Bovard, Penn. | Photo courtesy of Mz. Jones' Curiosities.

  • From their home in Bovard, Penn., Neil and Britney Jones run Mz. Jones’ Curiosities, a business that specializes in tasteful taxidermy and wearable oddities. | Photo courtesy of Mz. Jones' Curiosities.

  • Sheep brain globes are among the best-selling items for Bovard, Penn.-based Mz. Jones' Curiosities. | Photo courtesy of Mz. Jones' Curiosities.

Neil Jones wanted his wife’s first Mother’s Day to be memorable, so, like any doting husband, he bought her a dead bat.

Mounted on a mirror in a shadow box, the winged creature’s corpse cost $200.

“I was so grateful, but so mad that he spent that much,” Britney Jones says. “After that it clicked. I looked into a few things and told him I can make bat shadow boxes for half the price of the one he bought me. We are kicking off our third year of vending this spring, and my bats start at $80.”

From their home in Bovard, Penn., the couple runs Mz. Jones’ Curiosities, a business that specializes in tasteful taxidermy and wearable oddities.

The basement workshop resembles Dr. Frankenstein’s laboratory; there are bins filled with bones and shelves lined with hearts, brains and eyeballs. Fetal sheep lie curled up next to bags of insects, coiled snakes and mummified mice. Every so often, the Jones’s receive a box of pig testicles in the mail.

Ethically sourced from reptile breeders, butterfly farmers, hunters and school biology companies, the specimens are used to make home décor, ornaments and jewelry. Mz. Jones is a staple on the Tri-State convention and craft show circuit.

“Our best sellers are brain globes, snake globes, squid tentacle jars and squid tentacle earrings,” Britney Jones says. “It’s always interesting seeing what sells in different areas. (In) Ohio we sell a lot of insects and reptiles. Pittsburgh shoppers buy almost anything we bring, but it’s hard to keep squid, brain globes and hearts in stock. Philly buys bats and bones. In Erie, we sold out of lamprey and pigs before the convention ended.”

For Britney, 30, a childhood fascination with dead things led to a teenage obsession with documentaries about autopsies and forensic pathology. She even considered applying for mortuary school, but went into banking instead.

Neil, 34, grew up in a medical family and embalmed more than 1,000 bodies in his four years as a funeral director.

The pair met online. On their first date, they sipped coffee and ate pie while chatting about trocars, medical devices that are used to drain bodily fluids.

“… being able to discuss topics such as death and preservation is a rare trait that any funeral director needs in companionship,” Neil says.

Burned out by their day jobs with a baby on the way, the Jones’s decided to start a new life by selling dead things.

Neil’s background helped them get started, but, through a lot of trial and error, they’ve both become self-taught biologists and chemists. Their 2-year-old son, Tyler, is captivated by bones. The mini-osteologist helps his parents pack up orders and serves as a quality control specialist for the earrings and necklaces. There’s a dissection tool kit set aside for him for when he’s old enough to learn laboratory safety and anatomy.

Once a specimen arrives, it is cleaned, examined and embalmed. Depending on how the animal is going to be displayed, it is either placed in a jar with an alcohol-based solution, soaked in a preservative mixture or pumped full of a secret formula that dries it out. These processes can take weeks or even months.

There are some vocal critics who balk at the family business, saying it is disrespectful and even sacrilegious, especially when human bones are used. (Human bone is legal to own in every state except Louisiana, Georgia and Tennessee.)

“We debated the ethics of carrying human parts in our business, simply on the fact that these bones came from another human being and how would they feel about being a part of a collection?” Britney says. “Considering that the bones come from scientific donations that are now being disregarded and disposed of, we feel confident that our careful preparation and display of these human bones are in keeping with the wishes the donors had.”

Neil adds, “We do hear the occasional comments, but we strive to make our products as tasteful and aesthetically pleasing as possible. You wouldn’t walk into a natural history museum and make rude comments. We want you to be able to put our work on your shelf and still have mom and grandma come over to visit.”

For every detractor, there is a defender who wants Neil and Britney to preserve their heart or a piece after they die. Taxidermied pets also are in high demand.

Within the next five years, the Joneses hope to open up a brick-and-mortar store. In the meantime, they’ll enjoy taking their little freak show on the road.

January 9, 2018 - 12:12pm