With taxidermist's help, Alberta man preserves bones of his amputated arm

When Mark Holmgren had his arm amputated this spring, he couldn't stand the thought of his severed limb ending up in the trash.

Taxidermist had to check: 'You don't want someone bringing you a random arm'

The bones of Mark's Holmgren's amputated arm have been bleached and glued back together. (Legends Taxidermy and Skull Cleaning)

When Mark Holmgren had his arm amputated this spring, he couldn't stand the thought of his severed limb ending up in the trash.

Instead, he had his arm bones cleaned, mounted and preserved for posterity.

"If I was going to get rid of it, I wanted to do something cool with it," Holmgren said in an interview Tuesday with CBC Radio's Edmonton AM

"I thought about it for years, you know. I always see those Halloween decorations with a hand holding an ashtray or something like that. That's where I got the idea from." 

Holmgren was 17 when he wiped out on his brother's motorbike, severely damaging the nerves in his right arm and shoulder.

The limb hung immobile and numb at his side for years before he finally decided to have it amputated and contacted doctors at the University of Alberta Hospital.

'Sign a piece of paper'

After meeting with his surgeon, Holmgren sheepishly asked that he be allowed to keep his severed arm after surgery.

"I was even worried about asking the doctor, like, will they think I'm crazy or something? But I asked, and they just said I had to sign a piece of paper and I could have it." 

A few weeks after his operation, Holmgren brought his arm home from the hospital in a garbage bag and kept it on ice in his freezer as he tried to find a willing taxidermist for the job.

It proved difficult to find one willing to handle human flesh. 

"They all pretty much shut me down right quick," he said. 

Holmgren brings home his severed arm in a garbage bag. (Mark Holmgren/Facebook)

'Putting that puzzle together'

Holmgren said he was rejected five times before a hunter friend put him in touch with Danielle Swift, who — along with her husband David — operates Legends Taxidermy and Skull Cleaning in Drayton Valley, Alta.

"I thought he was joking. I don't think I'll ever get a phone call like that in my life. I think I hesitated for maybe 10 seconds," Swift said. 

"I thought, whoa, that's weird but, whoa, that's cool. 

"When I told my husband about it he was, like, 'No way.' But I said, 'It's too late, he's already on his way.' " 

Swift said she gets many "weird requests." She often rejects customers who want their dead pets stuffed, but she wasn't squeamish about working on Holmgren's arm. 

"I get the feeling of not wanting to lose a part of yourself," she said. "It was done to honour his arm." 

"Mark brought his arm here, but I had to make sure he actually only had one arm attached to his body, because you don't want someone bringing you a random arm." 

Swift met with Holmgren before setting the bones inside a tank of flesh-eating beetles. 

The colony of bugs picked the bones clean. 

"It's human, it's not something that's scary. But when I actually took it out of the bag and I held it, that's when I was like, whoa, this is a little creepy. But at the same time, I thought, I saw the man, he is alive. I will get over it." 

After they were cleaned and bleached, Swift enlisted the help of a physiotherapist friend to reassemble the complicated network of bones.

"That project took some time, that's for sure," she said. "There was just no way I was putting that puzzle together by myself.

"I think this is going to be in the top five requests I've had in my life." 

Holmgren, 38, has put his arm on display in his home and couldn't be more pleased with the final product.

"I'll probably put a nail in the wall and hang it up like a picture," he said. "Right now it's behind my sink. There is a little shelf behind there with some flowers and plants and stuff.

"It's exactly what I wanted. It's all glued back together and it looks good. To me, it looks great."


Wallis Snowdon is a journalist with CBC Edmonton focused on bringing stories to the website and the airwaves. She loves helping people tell their stories on issues ranging from health care to the courts. Originally from New Brunswick, Wallis has reported in communities across Canada, from Halifax to Fort McMurray. She previously worked as a digital and current affairs producer with CBC Radio in Edmonton. Wallis has a bachelor of journalism (honours) from the University of King's College in Halifax, N.S. Share your stories with Wallis at wallis.snowdon@cbc.ca.


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