COUNCIL BLUFFS — The headline on the ad was unusual enough: “Oak coffin on stand.”
Even more unusual was that the coffin wasn't empty. It contained a full set of human skeletal remains.
That's where a Council Bluffs family's effort to raise money to save a fraternal organization's former home hit a snag. Unidentified human remains can't be sold, police say.
Dave Burgstrum of Council Bluffs posted the ad — with photos of both the coffin and its contents — in the antiques section on Craigslist, an online classifieds website. Burgstrum said the coffin had been used in the past for rituals conducted by the organization, the Independent Order of Odd Fellows.
The local chapter was chartered in Council Bluffs in 1852 and Gen. Grenville Dodge was a member. But Burgstrum, a fifth-generation Odd Fellow, said membership dwindled in the last two decades.
Only three members of the Bluffs chapter are still living: Burgstrum; his wife, Linda; and his brother, Dan.
Because of the declining membership, the state organization pulled the local group's charter about seven years ago. But Dan Burgstrum said his family held out hope of reviving the organization and its tradition of giving.
“Our philosophy was to donate to the poor without anybody knowing,” Dan Burgstrum said. “We did it for many years with no recognition.”
With no charter, the Burgstrums found themselves with a hall and plenty of memorabilia to oversee.
Recently that task has caused some strain. Dave Burgstrum said property taxes are due on the hall, which is in the 700 block of First Avenue. The plan is to sell the coffin, with an asking price of $12,000, to cover taxes.
The coffin, Dave Burgstrum said, is from the early 1900s and is made of oak. He said the Odd Fellows used it in initiation rituals as a representation of death.
“All men are made equal,” he said. “Rich man or poor man, everybody will eventually die. So the lesson was to do as much good as you can while you are alive.”
The story of the skeleton inside the coffin is less clear.
Dave Burgstrum said a lodge historian told him years ago that a doctor had donated the skeleton to the lodge. As the story goes, the doctor, who retired in the 1880s, had used the skeleton to show patients their anatomy. Why the lodge took the bones and why they were in the coffin remain mysteries.
“They were just there as long as anyone could remember,” Dave Burgstrum said.
A skeleton in a classified ad caught the attention of Council Bluffs police, and detectives went to the lodge Friday to look at the remains. Detective Michael Roberts said the bones could not be sold without an identification tag.
“If they had papers of origination, then they would be OK to own,” Roberts said.
Karen Foreman, chief investigator for the Pottawattamie County Medical Examiner's Office, said the bones will be sent to the Iowa State Medical Examiner's Laboratory in Ankeny to be examined by an anthropologist.
Foreman said that learning the identity of the person is extremely unlikely, but the race and gender of the bones can be determined. If they are of Native American origin, they will be returned to a Native American organization.
Dave Burgstrum doesn't care about the bones anymore. He just wants to sell the coffin.
“What do you do with them? You can't throw them in the trash or bury them,” he said. “(The medical examiner) can keep them, and I'll be done with them.”
Burgstrum said an antique dealer estimated the coffin's worth at between $12,000 and $15,000.
“I'm ready to wheel and deal on it,” he said. “I'd like to get those taxes paid.”