Illustration by Jennifer Kahn

Boneghazi: How a Grave-Robbing Controversy Tore an Online Witch Community Apart

A year ago, a lone necromancer posted in a queer witch group on Facebook, offering to ship some human bones they'd discovered in a walk through the cemetery across state lines. What transpired next left the witch community fragmented—and resulted in...

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Oct 31 2016, 7:35pm

Illustration by Jennifer Kahn

"The world is changed. I feel it in the water. I feel it in the earth. I smell it in the air. Much that once was is lost, for none now live who remember it." The elf Galadriel uttered these words about Middle Earth in the prologue to The Fellowship of The Ring, but she could as easily have been referring to our world, which was elementally altered last winter when a lone necromancer from New Orleans brought the dark art of bone magic and fears of grave robbing into the 21st century.

The controversy, commonly referred to as "Boneghazi" or "bones discourse," first bubbled up in the winter of 2015, when Ender Darling, a non-binary identified, white-passing witch of color (pronouns: they/them) tried to share their collection of found human bone fragments with other magic practitioners on the internet, sparking a vehement debate among the queer witch community, eventually leading to a short-lived viral spectacle around the controversy and, within a year, a federal investigation into Darling's actions—which has reportedly resulted in their arrest for the trafficking of human remains.

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The entire saga began with a thread created on December 8 of 2015 in a secret Facebook group known as the Queer Witch Collective (QWC), an online faction of LGBTQ magic practitioners that was around 2,000 members strong at its height. On this date, Ender Darling, a member of the collective, wrote that they had started collecting human bones from a so-called "poor man's graveyard" in their neighborhood to use in their magic practice. "Most graveyards around here are full of above ground graves because we live in a fishbowl. But there happens to be a graveyard where it's all in-ground graves," they offered. "You can literally walk around, see femurs, teeth, jaws, skull caps, etc., etc. This is where I go to find my bones for curse work and general spells that require bone."

They elaborated, explaining that the energy emitted by human bone is more conducive to their practice than, say, the bones of animals. "Anyways, I wanted to see if I started 'selling' (basically cover shipping to wherever you happen to be) if people would be interested? I know human bones aren't easy to come by and I usually have leftovers."

The initial respondents to Darling's thread were positive. Multiple group members and moderators either expressed interest in the bones, wanted to ensure the legality of any bone shipments for the safety of the witch, or pointedly affirmed the ethical integrity of Darling's practice, if not personally endorsing it. "Yes please," one bone-interested member wrote.

I am really sad that someone is acting like this is grave desecration when it's literally taking what the earth washes up.

Others sought to ensure that Darling's practices were ethical by magical standards. "Are you making any sort of offering or payment at the graveyard, to the dead or the spirits of the land?" one user questioned. "I bring drink and honey and flowers," Darling responded, later clarifying that they never actually dig for bones, but merely take what they find along their path. "Me and my goddess have a pact," Darling explained. "She provides the bones if I only take what the earth gives, and I leave offerings."

Within a few hours, however, other members of the collective began to harshly criticize Darling. The first critique came around 10 o'clock that evening, when one witch commented, "No!!! Let them rest in peace!!!!" Darling offhandedly rejected this, and other members defended them. So did the QWC moderators. One mod—let's call her Violet—wrote, "I am really sad that someone is acting like this is grave desecration when it's literally taking what the earth washes up so they don't go into waste treatment???"

"Do. Not. Shame. Me. For. My. Work," Darling wrote indignantly, drawing attention to one of the group's central ethical pillars: Shaming any magical practice is expressly forbidden. Another member quickly jumped to defend Darling, mocking the critic's poor understanding of magic today. "Someone needs to learn more about witchcraft, it seems," they wrote derisively.

But other users quickly pointed out that Darling was unaware of the historical and sociopolitical implications of their bone collecting; disproportionately, they noted, low-income people in New Orleans are buried in graves that are vulnerable to flooding because they cannot afford to be interred in above-ground tombs. One of Darling's critics in the Queer Witch Collective posited that Darling was taking bones from Holt Cemetery, a locally known graveyard for the poor near where Darling lived. (A Tumblr apparently belonging to Darling later denied the bones came from Holt.)

You are implementing white supremacist and colonialist tactics to do your bidding.

"All burials in Holt Cemetery are below ground, which is not ideal because of New Orleans being below sea level," explains Amanda Walker, the director of Save Our Cemeteries, a nonprofit organization that aims to preserve the graveyards of New Orleans. According to Walker, Holt Cemetery is "extremely crowded, with nearly 60,000 interments," and those buried in below-ground plots there are exposed to elements that disrupt their graves. "Flooding is an issue in Holt and always has been," Walker explained. It is the combination of these three factors—subterranean burial, an overabundance of bodies, and heavy rain—that causes human remains to surface in Holt Cemetery.

Many members of the QWC, some of whom are local to New Orleans, said that the majority of people buried in Holt Cemetery are people of color. "I joined this group about 3 weeks ago and about 10 seconds into that tenure I see a post about someone collecting potentially BLACK human bones," one collective member wrote. "You are implementing white supremacist and colonialist tactics to do your bidding," another said, exasperated. "Like, yall are actually stealing bones."

Read more: Witches Allegedly Stole Penises and Kept Them as Pets in the Middle Ages

Violet—the same voice of authority who had previously rejected member claims of grave desecration—seemed to alter their position in response to this line of criticism: "I support people discussing the use and distribution of racialized people's bones, especially bones of black people (which very well may be in this graveyard) being given to non black or esp. white people," the moderator wrote.

Darling agreed, hoping to encourage open discussion: "That's a great idea please." But it was too late: Members and mods had already spent several hours virtually dismissing, or shutting down, the concerns of group members. Disgusted, some members left the collective altogether, perhaps to "find an actual traditional coven that isn't full of creepy white and white passing folks who want to trample on traditions because they found free bones," as one user wrote in their final post.

Illustration by Jennifer Kahn

Within days, the bones discourse had spread to Tumblr, where a concerned citizen penned a brief "PSA" post warning the Tumblrverse that user littlefuckinmonster (Ender Darling's account) was stealing bones from New Orleans graveyards. Shortly after that, another user uploaded the screenshot of Darling's QWC Facebook thread, and it quickly went viral. User reactions teetered between outrage and a sort of gleeful madness. "[Shout out] to the person who got their bones stolen," one Tumblr user wrote. "You're more tumblr famous in death than I ever will be in life."

Many relished in the fact that Darling had ended the meme drought that Tumblr suffered in the second half of 2015. "When I woke up this morning I would not have even entertained the thought that the meme to revive this memeless economy would be centered around a literal grave robber and someone who decided the best course of action was to make a call-out post about it," trans-hamlet wrote. "I feel so alive."

Others were less delighted by the absurdity of the situation, and publicly condemned the behavior as offensive, disrespectful, and illegal. One Tumblr entity, The Skeleton Fairy, cast a curse upon Darling for their deeds. "Bone theft is a most heinous act," the fairy declared. "Hear me, bone wytch, and know that you are forever cursed. So say I, the fae of femurs, the imp of iliums, the sylph of skulls, the pixie of pelvises, the skeleton fairy." Some users, not content with taking magical recourse, reportedly contacted the police.

Hear me, bone wytch, and know that you are forever cursed. So say I, the fae of femurs.

Another Tumblr account quickly appeared, apparently created by Darling in an attempt to respond to the controversy that had overtaken Tumblr. They explained their behavior at length, making the argument that they were trying to salvage the bones from destruction. They wrote that they had been in the unnamed graveyard tending to things, trying to neaten up the weed-ridden graves, when they saw "an old man digging with a shovel and a backhoe, tearing into old plots." The user claimed that they made a snap judgment after seeing "a few bones tumble from the dirt and into the street."

"I picked them up and went through the graveyard and picked up ones I saw on my path, knowing that they were either going to be crushed or swept away," the user continued. "And I'm sorry, but for me, a spiritual person who works with death, seeing a fucking machine tear into graves like that seemed a lot less respectful to the dead you all are so concerned about than me picking them up and saving them."

But regardless of their justification, what Darling did in Holt Cemetery is technically a felony, according to Walker of Save Our Cemeteries. "It is illegal, and ultimately, disrespectful" to gather human remains from any cemetery, she affirms, adding that surfaced bone fragments are common, and that there are legal and ethical ways to respond to them: "They are not 'there for the taking' simply because they are exposed to the elements."

They are not 'there for the taking' simply because they are exposed to the elements.

As the Tumblr post and ensuing debate went viral, it arrived on the radar of mainstream media outlets, many of which treated it as a strange novelty case: a collective of overly-PC witches caught in a quagmire of theoretical ethics over an instance of potential grave robbing, who had taken to hysterically calling each other out on Tumblr. Buzzfeed published an article explaining that "this person might have robbed graves and Tumblr is going insane"; New York magazine published a similar piece, noting that Tumblr users were "either outraged or amused" at the alleged grave-robbing.

At some point, people began referring to the controversy as "Boneghazi."

As Boneghazi reached its dramatic climax, law enforcement began conducting an investigation into Ender Darling for the potential trafficking of human remains. Their home was raided on January 28, 2016, and they reportedly left the state. On April 11, the New Orleans Advocate published an interview with Darling, who blasted law enforcement. "They were coming in seriously expecting to find bodies and human organs and have me and my roommates arrested for black-marketing human remains," Darling said. "You should have seen their faces when they walked into the house and found a bunch of sleeping hippies."

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So how did this instance of morally questionable, technically illegal (but also seemingly petty) bone foraging, written about on a private witch message board become a federal investigation that ultimately led to the arrest of an impoverished, queer person of color? (Darling was reportedly unable to pay their $8,500 bail.) To understand the full context of Boneghazi, it's necessary to understand both the politics of the Queer Witch Collective and the place of bone magic in contemporary witchcraft.

The Queer Witch Collective was originally created by LGBT witches, using political principles that aimed to upend the oppressive structures that queer people and people of color are unjustly subjected to in American society. The QWC describes themselves this way: "We are a collective of queer witches diverse in age, nationality, gender, race, class, ability & more. To strive for a better community for everyone we must acknowledge how privileges and oppression intersect across these labels."

As the original discourse around Darling's post clearly shows, shaming is a serious offense in the QWC. The collective was founded on the shameless acceptance of diverse practices, even practices that are taboo in mainstream American witchcraft. The anti-shaming policy was in place to protect against the criticism of so-called "black magic" (a term that the QWC generally considered to be racially coded). "This rule was created to protect [people of color], whose cultures are often criticized (re: 'black' magic, animal sacrifice, hexing, etc.) by white witches," the QWC moderator Violet later explained in a follow-up post in the collective. This sort of thinking is common among millennial witches online who are interested in unpacking racist and colonialist perspectives that elevate certain types of magical practice above others.

Bone magic can be considered a form of black magic, which would explain why some of the QWC admins were initially reluctant to condemn Darling's actions. "I have never once said that I agreed with what [Darling was] doing," Dakota, the founder of the Queer Witch Collective, who is transfeminine, non-binary, and white, wrote in an apology post after the bones discourse implosion had torn the group apart.

There is an immense amount of shaming directed at [African diaspora religions] by white witches.

Trying to explain their initial empathy towards Darling, Dakota added, "There is an immense amount of shaming directed at [African diaspora religions] by white witches, whether it be about animal sacrifice, hexing, cursing, jinxing, etc. All I saw was a [person of color] being attacked for their practice, even if it's something I did not understand or would never do myself."

There's a long history of using human remains in magic; necromancy, the magical communion with the dead, dates back to ancient Rome, Greece, Egypt, Persia, and Mesopotamia. There are mentions of necromancy in the Bible and, before that, the Odyssey. According to Alex Mar, author of Witches in America, a five-year survey into the covens of modern-day pagans and Wiccans living in the United States, Darling is probably "someone who is curious about necromancy and necromantic practices." Darling "may be interested in African diaspora religions, like Palo Mayombe," she adds. (Palo practitioners are known as Palero, and Mar clarifies that the practices Darling describes doing would not be recognizable to them. Mar, who has many contacts in witchcraft communities throughout the country from her years of research, notes that the witches in New Orleans who she spoke with about Darling's case believe Darling's behavior to reflect inexperience and irresponsibility.)

"There aren't any specific traditions, that I know of, or that I've heard of, where you're given the right to take the remains of someone you have no family or magical or religious connection to, and use them for your magical practice," Mar said. People who choose to take the bones of strangers—or bones without consent—are likely operating outside of tradition.

There's always a balance being struck ethically between the mundane and the spiritual; what you do for the sake of your spiritual practice.

As seen in Darling's defense of their practice, some people who repurpose human remains for magical reasons sometimes believe that they're doing a service to the dead, or "giving them a more exalted next life," Mar explains. But who makes that determination? Who decides when a spirit has actually granted consent, or whether or not that once-living person would want their skeleton taken, however casually, from the cemetery where it was buried?

"It's clear to me that the serious magical practitioners that I have met and spoken with: there's always a balance being struck ethically between the mundane and the spiritual; what you do for the sake of your spiritual practice," Mar says. "I just can't imagine any of those people arguing that it should take precedent over basic respect for human life and consent in the mundane world."

Read more: Black Magic: Hoodoo Witches Speak Out on the Appropriation of Their Craft

To many of the people passively observing Boneghazi, the incident served as a humorous reflection of the perils of hyper-careful online identity politics: To them, it seemed that Darling and their critics, and their critics' critics, had turned an incident of literal grave robbing into the stuff of an Intro to Queer theory seminar at a liberal arts school. "All of Tumblr has been leading to this," vikingspacebees wrote. "We have reached Peak Tumblr. A callout post was made for someone literally stealing human bones and offering to sell them, with attached commentary about racism and classism. A Your Fave Is Problematic-esque discussion, made in lieu of contacting the authorities. The post offering the bones had content warnings at the top. It is the end of 2015 and Tumblr has become what it was always destined to be."

Indeed, what makes the bones discourse so outwardly odd is the way that identity politics and discursive theory are used to code and analyze everything, from living beings to nonliving objects. This tendency is common in the Queer Witch Collective: In one post shared to the group, for instance, a QWC member lamented about the ethics of using crystals in spellwork, as the relationship between human and crystal can be exploitative.

"Does anyone else notice that the crystals themselves are despairing and hurting?" they asked. "Lately, I can't even pick mine up without getting hit by this feeling of the whole crystal world crying out in pain." The author of this post claimed that they were preparing to bury their crystal responsibly, presumably as a way to end its suffering. Though this seems strange to the outsider, the responses to that thread were largely affirming—members of the collective understood what the user meant, and responding carefully to the fetishization of crystals became just another example of how they could, as a group, apply their theoretical concepts to their magical practices successfully.

Does anyone else notice that the crystals themselves are despairing and hurting?

For the members of the QWC, however, none of this is humorous or strange, and the fact that the group's moderators appeared to initially be uncritical of Darling represented a violation of the group's most sacred founding principles. While Darling continued to remind critics that the group had a "no shaming" policy, the argument had no power any longer. Other witches dismissed it, firing back: "There is a difference between shaming and questioning possible ethics and possible oppressive practices—why are we silencing a black witch?"

After Tumblr had brought the debate viral, the Queer Witch Collective's secret world began falling apart. Darling quit the collective of their own volition shortly after the start of the bones discourse. Dakota, the white witch who had founded the group, apologized to the remaining members: "I'm sorry everyone, even after trying my best I have fallen short," they wrote. "I'm sorry." Their apology was not accepted, and they eventually left after months of harsh criticism. "I don't think white witches are inherently bad," Violet wrote one day. "I do however think Dakota is irredeemable, based on the fact their aura is rotten AF."

The controversy around Darling and Dakota tore the QWC apart, and now that they were both gone, the group struggled to feel comfortable again. Many people of color were disgusted that so many white witches had allowed the bones discourse to occur and had not immediately and unilaterally condemned Darling's behavior.

The moderator who took over in Dakota's wake tried to fix things: She removed the "safe space" label from the group's description to honor the fact that the sense of safety they once felt in the collective was gone, maybe forever. She suggested that white witches remove themselves from the discourse and simply listen to witches of color. "Every single white witch just needs to stop posting, period," she wrote. "At the very least, stop posting asking for a spell, for a specific thing. That's not how this shit works. It's not a drive thru window. We are trying to decolonize our minds and bodies while you are asking us for McMagic." In the fall of this year, the new admins committed a total purge of all members, save for the moderation team. Witches are allowed to re-submit applications for membership, though it appears few have done so. There are currently just 77 queer witches in the collective.

We are trying to decolonize our minds and bodies while you are asking us for McMagic.

Today, from the outside looking in, the Queer Witch Collective is a virtual ghost world, where nearly 2,000 witches vanished as if the rapture came. In the weeks and months following the bones discourse, people in the collective seemed to be drained, as if they'd expended too much energy during that long winter online. Probing existential questions appeared on the feed—questions about the violability of an immortal soul, and the right for a witch to harness magic in skeletal remains.

"When and how is it ethical to use human remains?" one witch asked herself. "Who has the authority to grant permission to use another's body, even after death?" begged another. Answers were emotional, disjointed, theoretical. "You could ask us or others for permission—or you can dig up your own grandma," someone suggested. One witch idly worried about their own kin becoming tools for the necromancer. "Some members of my fam are catholic, and it's very important to them that they get to rest in peace," they wrote. "I don't want anyone to take that from them."

Others sighed, shrugging off burdens too big to shoulder. "I'll pray to my gods," one mage pledged, "not the democracy of witches."