Beyond Decomposition: The use of ‘body farms’ in research

Imagine this: You are a scientist at a University that has finally approved your request to do outdoor forensic research using real human remains. The first few unclaimed bodies are shipped to you, a present from the local morgue.

You take each body and set them under certain conditions. One is put head first into a body of water, legs resting on land. Another is secured under a cage in direct sunlight, free from disturbances from animals. The last one is nude and covered with shrubbery and dark plastic.

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Every day, you check on the bodies to see how the decomposition is being affected by the varying conditions. You stick with your research through the bloating and all. The smell of rotting human flesh has become almost normal.

Sounds like a job for a character in a horror movie, right?

Since 1981, this has been a very real scenario for forensic anthropology faculty and students. The first outdoor research center for forensic taphonomic processes was opened by anthropologist Dr. William Bass at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville.

Today in the U.S., there are six operational facilities:

Colloquially, these facilities are referred to as body farms, although some view the term as disrespectful.

“People like me intended no irreverence when we called it that, for no one respects the dead more than those of us who work with them and hear their silent stories.  The purpose is to help the living. That was the point when The Body Farm came into being more than twenty years before, when scientists got determined to learn more about time of death.  On any given day its several wooded acres held dozens of bodies in varying stages of decomposition. Research projects had brought me here periodically over the years, and though I would never be perfect in determining time of death, I had gotten better.” -Patricia Cornwell, The Body Farm (1994)

Not only do Cornwell’s words address the issue of respect toward the dead, they als0 provide an example of the importance of these research facilities in improving forensic skill.

The research done at body farms in becoming increasingly essential to the furthering of knowledge about different rates of decomposition, insect activity and animal scavenging. Projects can range from how climate and environment affect decomposition to how bodies react to being frozen.

The data from such research an assist forensic experts in real-life investigations in establishing traits like postmortem interval, or the time that’s passed since a person’s death. Body farms also serve other functions such as training centers for forensic anthropology students, law enforcement and cadaver dogs.

So far, the only body farms are located within the U.S.The problem with this is the research tends to be climate-specific. U.S. states and countries without body farms don’t have the taphonomic data for their region. This is why it is so important for the public in other countries to be educated about forensic research, to garner support for the building of such facilities abroad.


Australia, near the new facility. (Original Source)

The first one outside of the U.S. will most likely be located in Australia at the University of Technology, Syndey. The Australian Facility for Taphonomic Experimental Research, as it will be called, will be the first step in catching up other parts of the world with this type of forensic advancement.

The United Kingdom is also behind with forensic anthropological research. In the UK, pigs are being used in taphonomic pursuits. Unfortunately, the variability of humans makes the research on pigs less meaningful or applicable.

The UK is in need of a outdoor human body farm – but there are a lot of obstacles before that can happen. Citizens are expressing concern about where human research facilities will be located and how it will affect them. There isn’t the same opportunity for isolation of a facility there as in the States. Then, there’s funding and obtaining the bodies.

Who knows when these obstacles will be overcome? Until the conditions are met and the UK and other countries can move forward in this process, the potential to expand the breadth of scientific research for the sake of research as well as for application in medicolegal cases is at a halt.



I feel like a hero – and you are my heroin

That’s right. The heroin epidemic is so out of control in the US, The Cincinnati Enquirer has their own Terry DeMio to report on all things heroin-related.

In more than half of the states, heroin use is on a steep incline.

From 2000 to 2014, there has been a 138.8 percent increase in drug overdoses. 61% of overdoses in 2014 were opioid/heroin-related. Prescribed medications such as fentanyl are becoming more prevalent, and that drug is 50 times more powerful than heroin.

Perhaps most alarming is the numbers in New Jersey, which has been coined Herointown by a group of journalists in the area. This project includes a page dedicated to every person who died from heroin in the state since 2004 and includes more than 5000 people’s names, ages, hometowns and years of death.

And that is only the deceased victims in a single state. Think of how many people are living with this addiction right now.

Besides the visible symptoms like shortness of breath, dry mouth, small pupils, sudden changes in behavior, disorientation and droopy appearance, heroin causes lasting bone damage.

  1. Osteomyelitis

Osteomyelitis is correlated with drug abuse involving a needle. This is a bone infection that travels through the blood stream. Because it is most likely to affect the spine in adults, it can cause lifelong disability. If caught soon enough – which is unlikely to be the case if you are a drug abuser – the infected bone can be removed through surgery.

2. Osteoporosis

Opiate abuse has been linked to osteopenia, which means a decrease in bone density. Eventually, this can take a turn for the worst, becoming osteoporosis. This can cause the bones to become so brittle, a simple fall can cause them to fracture.

3. Arthritis

Because addicts usually also suffer from malnutrition, their joints usually weaken. The nutritional deficiencies negatively affect the body’s ability to repair itself, causing osteoarthritis.

4. Poor Posture

Opiate users are known to have poor posture. The weakening of the muscles that support the spine can increase pain and the risk of injury just from doing everyday activities.

5. Partial Paralysis

The atrophied muscles and bone diseases associated with heroin use can lead to paralysis of the affected areas.

If all of these horrible things – and loads more, by the way – are possible, why are the numbers increasing so dramatically?

Simple economics. The US has seen a decrease in cocaine and Oxycontin use. These drugs have become more expensive and harder to get. More people are turning to heroin, the cheaper drug that can be purchased for only $9 a dose.

However, it isn’t only the poor picking this poison. Remember Cory Monteith from Glee? He died about three years ago from a heroin overdose, horrifying fans across the world. He just didn’t seem like the type.

The truth is, “the type” is everyone. Drugs don’t discriminate. For the wealthy, it is easier to stay on the drugs without being noticed. This is because the malnutrition associated with heroin addicts isn’t from the drug itself. It is from the lifestyle that goes with it, and a poor addict will choose drugs over food.

What can you do about this problem now?

As fellow blogger Patricia Byrne writes: “Stop the silence.”

When you notice symptoms, start the conversation. Don’t let the people around you suffer just because it might be embarrassing or a hard thing to confront.

Saving lives begins with you.

Further Reading:

Learn about who is using heroin in this USNews article.