A cremation service on Tuesday claimed 18 human heads uncovered by an X-ray last month at O'Hare International Airport to the surprise of U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers.
Missing paperwork had left officials in the dark since December as to the owner of the heads, anatomical specimens used for medical research, which were embalmed and packed in three sealed cases.
On Monday, the heads were sent to the Cook County medical examiner's office and numerous media reports were published about the discovery.
Tuesday morning, an unidentified cremation service showed up at the medical examiner's office to claim the remains. The FBI is scrutinizing the paperwork and the heads likely won't be released for several weeks, Cook County spokeswoman Mary Paleologos said.
The specimens were shipped from the United States to Rome for medical research and then returned for disposal.
The body parts showed up during a routine search at the airport a week before Christmas. Customs officers confiscated the cases and kept them at O'Hare until Monday, when they were taken to the Cook County medical examiner's office as the airport lacked the proper long-term storage.
Officials photographed and X-rayed the specimens to keep as records.
"Shipments of human remains into the United States are not without precedent and there is nothing against the law when they are sent with the right documentation," U.S. Customs and Border Protection spokeswoman Cherise Miles said. "They are processed and released at the first port of arrival in the United States. CBP considers these shipments to be low-risk."
While the heads story may have given rise to macabre jokes around water coolers, the use of human specimens for medical research is not only a fact of life but lifesaving, said Callum Ross, an anatomy and biology professor at the University of Chicago.
"Anatomical specimens are used in research and in teaching -- they're an integral part of biomedical research," he said. "People's lives and their well-being depend on this happening."
For example when new hip implants or bone screws are being researched, "they all have to be tried out on human cadavers."
Ross, president of the Anatomical Gift Association of Illinois, which had no connection to the O'Hare incident, said human specimens are transported all the time. But, "they need to be sourced properly, carefully managed and preserved and transported," he explained.
The heads could have been used for anything from brain injury research to temporomandibular studies, dealing with jaw muscle pain, Ross said.