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.

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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.

 

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READ WARNING: Lessons From Forensic Anthropology Camp

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When I was in high school, I was obsessed with forensic science. There was something sexy about scientifically investigating death, especially since my firsthand knowledge was episodes of CSI and online modules at school like “The Murder at the Pizza Party” (no joke!).

Then, the more I researched murders and dead bodies, the less I thought I would be able to handle it. So, I figured since forensic anthropologists study bones, I could do that. I could work with skeletal remains. Forensic anthropologists don’t work with flesh, right? RIGHT?

Wrong. This is something I learned the hard way.

If you are thinking about being a forensic anthropologist, I recommend getting an internship or field experience before committing to graduate school. Besides the fact that it’s an extremely tough business to get into, you have to deal with intensely pressured situations, inadequate lab equipment (it’s not like what you see on Bones), and grisly scenes that include flesh.

Most of my field school experience was spent digging up unidentified human remains. That part was fine. It was the day at the morgue that changed everything.

First, we saw the area of the morgue where the freshly dead lay, naked and vulnerable. I’m afraid of death as it is (isn’t it ironic, don’t ya think?) and seeing the reality of what happens when you die truly scarred me.

Everything just felt so impersonal – which is how it has to be for the medical examiners to keep their sanity.They even had screens with puppies and cute stuff on it to help with that.

The first dead body I saw was especially gruesome. It was a suicide. And it was hit by a train. And it wasn’t recognizable as the man it used to be. I keep saying it, but I have a good reason.

I looked straight into the person’s eyes. It hurt me to do this. I should never have looked. Because there was nothing there. It felt so empty. That’s what terrified me. No soul, no semblance of what makes us what we are. The visual was bad, yes, but our meat suits aren’t our essence. He didn’t have an essence – and that shook me to my core.

After trying to get that out of my head, we stopped for a group photo. Almost everyone’s smiling in it…but I’m just looking ahead, trying not to cry.


 

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Then, it was time for maceration. Yay.

Maceration is part of the forensic anthropologist’s listed duties in America. (In the UK, this isn’t the case.) Maceration, for those of you who don’t know, is when you soften and break down skin and flesh to get to the bones.

It’s a very important step in a lot of cases where an individual is unknown. Once the flesh is out of the way, the bones can speak to us, revealing secrets that can lead to identification, cause of death, age, sex, ancestry and more. It can be done using flesh-eating insects, emulsifying agents and more traditional methods.

In our case, we had boiling pots of water, cases of unidentified body part samples and sophisticated tools like toothbrushes. The part I had to work on was a femur – which was one of the least grisly parts present. Around me, people worked on skulls and other parts that were already mostly fleshless – to start off with.

I put my femur into the pot of boiling water. The first thing I noticed was the smell. It was like rotten Thanksgiving turkey…or like pork ribs that were left to mold on your stove for weeks. It was the smell of a decaying human being cooking.

I didn’t even make it to the point where I was going to scrape the flesh off with our “sophisticated” array of tools. I couldn’t do it. I was so nauseous. Also, I was totally freaked out because I sat in the middle of the outdoor area we were in, and as I looked around, my fellow students were sitting with buckets of water, brushes and people parts, just going at it, getting down to the bone.

This isn’t to say this wasn’t traumatizing for them, either. Somehow, though, they were stronger than me. They were able to compartmentalize what they were doing and tuck it away (mostly) as science. But, make no mistake, we all needed a drink at the end of that day.

I’m happy I didn’t stick around for more, even though I desperately wanted to be cut out for this job. I heard from others that they worked on a fully fleshed foot. They described the sound of the breaking toes and defleshing the section. Even what I imagined scarred me. Screw actually being around for it!

I beat myself up about “chickening out” on this for a while. I wished I was stronger. I wished I could look at it medically. But, for me, it was dehumanizing. And, at the end of the day, I decided if I had to lose some of my humanity, some of what makes me who I am, that it wasn’t worth it.

My mentor also helped me get over myself and made me realize I was courageous and that now I wouldn’t be wasting time and money furthering my education in a field I wasn’t cut out for.

These were all valuable, necessary lessons. Necessary pain.

Working in the field and digging up skeletons was great. There are so many other things I learned, but they aren’t necessary for the point of this entry. Honestly, I’ve never had as much fun in my life than when I was sweating under the hot California sun digging up John and Jane Does. It’s truly fascinating, and it revealed to me what I want to do in the future.

I want to work with bonesjust bones.

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