(The title is not a typo. I already have a pot simmering about the phrase "bone(s) of contention.")
I read William Riordan's Divine Light a couple months ago and found fascinating his appendix on Hungarian historian-anthropologist of religion, Mircea Eliade. Specifically, the references to shamanistic rites of passage have really stuck with me. I was enthralled by the references to candidates first having to be stripped down to the bone by mystical forces, or having to be torn apart and devoured by demons, or having to be buried and rotted away into skeletons, etc., before becoming shamans.
I am planning to read Divine Light again, but for now I can only say I believe Riordan alluded to the belief in some cultures that the bones are seen as the most vital and "real" part of the human body. In Western thinking, bones are normally regarded as mere dead matter left behind by the real person, as mere human-shaped rocks. But my studies of anatomy, physiology, and emergency medicine at university showed me that bones are, in fact, among the most sensitive, active, and dynamic tissues in the human body. Indeed, no one's bones are ever more than about 20 years old at any point in life, since the bones are constantly being ground down, smoothed, and refortified.
If you think about it, the non-Western view that bones are somehow more our "true self", makes sense. For one thing, bones are literally the most "inner" part of who we are. (What instinct drove Shakespeare to have Hamlet soliloquize himself by talking to a skull, I wonder?) They are also the hardest elements of our bodies. They undergird and empower all of our tissues: without bones, we would be immobile bags of meat. The tissues which hang from ("depend on") our bones inexorably and demonstrably wither and decay over time. Even when bones bend and bow over time, this is seen as an even more dramatic proof that the person as such is getting old, returning to the earth. In addition, bones are the only parts of us that persist in the tomb, beyond death, and they do so in a typically "mystical" way: the bones become bare, clean, white, and tranquil––a grim but apt image of eternal bliss and freedom. Despite its prominence in Western thought, I think the Catholic Church's… well, catholic patrimony keeps it in touch with this older view of bones. After all, Catholics don't venerate relics and skeletons for nothing! Perhaps this is what makes Wolverine such a gravitating superhero (for me, at least): his bones are nigh divine because they are nigh unbreakable.
In any case, this post is just a road sign to what will hopefully become a more coherent "essay" on the anthropology of bones in religious and secular milieux. The following are some resources I have found online, though I still would like to find some printed materials at the library.
http://books.google.com/books?id=uPJb-Yka0xAC, pp. 110, 166
(* cf. W. La Barre, R. Onians, J. Bremmer, E. Rohde)
"Use of Human Skulls and Bones in Tibet" by Berthold Laufer
"Of Flesh and Bones" by James L. Watson, i.a.
Any other leads I should follow?