Are you ready to learn the secrets of the Body Farm?
No – it’s not a plush spa offering Dead Sea masques and pedicures. The Body Farm, as it’s nicknamed, is a remote site in Knoxville, Tennessee, where human corpses are left to decompose in the name of advancing knowledge and research in forensic science. Understandably, the ‘Farm’ – the Forensic Anthropology Center – is surrounded by a razor-sharp fence…
Down to the bone
The site houses between 140-190 bodies at any one time, many of them donated by individuals or families in the hope of helping law enforcement bring killers to justice.
Although undeniably on the gory side, the grizzly research is meticulously orchestrated. Corpses are left to decay, exposed in various ways to simulate different potential crime scenes – buried in shallow graves, a vehicle’s trunk, wrapped in plastic, placed in a fire pit.
Temperature, humidity and the method of disposal will all affect the rate of decomposition and insect and animal activity on the body – as will scavenging by birds and animals. The aim is that, by better understanding the process of decomposition, techniques can be developed that’ll allow investigators to accurately pinpoint how and when a person died.
Police, prosecutors and coroners regularly visit the centre, where they’re educated in methods such as crime-scene techniques, body recovery, determining time of death and identification of bodies using skeletal remains – including training to identify those who’ve died in plane crashes or who are buried in mass war graves.
The centre was the first of its kind, established at the University of Tennessee in 1987 – and now the USA has six such research sites.
Professor Emeritus and Director of the Forensic Anthropology Center at the University of Tennessee, Dr Richard L. Jantz, says that donating your body to the body farm is much easier than donating it to a medical school: ‘They’re very particular, you know. If you’re obese, they won’t take you, if you’re too big they won’t take you, if you’ve been autopsied they won’t take you. But none of that matters to us.’
The rate of decay
Cold weather slows decomposition, while heat, sunlight, and high humidity accelerate it. So, a buried body, exposed to fewer elements, will usually decay more slowly than one in a shallow grave or one on the surface. If the soil has high moisture or acidity, the process can be sped up.
Jantz explains further: “If a body decomposes and you’re left with bone, the bone initially is still greasy and wet because of the fat that’s in it. But after it lies on the surface – or even if it’s buried for a certain period of time – bacterial action takes care of the grease, and the bone becomes dry. Animals come at different times during that stage. So rats, for example, come when the bone is still greasy. Rat signatures are fairly easy to recognise because they chew the ends of the bone to get the marrow. Then after the bone is dry, squirrels come along and gnaw on the bone. So if a bone has squirrel gnawing, it’s been there at least a year. So squirrels are a time-since-death indicator, and squirrels tend to gnaw on the bones in the spring – apparently for the calcium for their new litter – and you can even see annual cycles of squirrel gnawing.”
Along with the USA’s six body farms, a location in Australia’s New South Wales will host the country’s first body farm.
Here in the UK, British researchers are keen to find a site to host Europe’s only open-air lab for studying the decomposition of human remains – known as human taphonomy. Although, it’s a delicate task, with public opinion needing to be taken into consideration, and legal changes required – as well as considering the actual availability of dead bodies. And, despite the success of farms across the pond, previous attempts to establish a site in the UK have failed.
Several British universities have open-air labs for the study of decaying bodies – but these labs study pig carcasses, which are similar to human corpses. But, thanks to the success of the body farms in America, attitudes could be changing. So, could a body farm be coming to a field near you..?