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An aerial view of Freeman Ranch.(Daniel Wescott)

An aerial view of Freeman Ranch.(Daniel Wescott)

Body Farm

How do forensics experts know what they know? A lot of it is due to research done on body farms, research facilities that examine how bodies decompose.

Through the 1970s, forensic scientists still largely relied on research involving pig carcasses when consulting on criminal cases and attempting to determine the all-important post-mortem interval — the time between when a person dies and when his or her body is found. No one had ever watched a human body decay in a controlled setting firsthand.

That changed in 1980 at the University of Tennessee, where the anthropologist William Bass founded the first body farm. Bass got the idea after being called on to help police in a local murder case: they’d found a disturbed Civil War-era grave and suspected that the body in it was a recent one, swapped in by the suspect to conceal the evidence. Bass analyzed the body’s clothing and other factors and found that wasn’t the case. But he was troubled by the incomplete knowledge of human decomposition.

So he started collecting bodies. The very first one — a 73-year-old man who’d died of heart disease — was left to decay at an abandoned farm that had been donated to the university, just outside the town of Knoxville. Eventually, Bass and his students fenced in a 1.3-acre patch of woods on the property and began studying multiple bodies at once.

Beyond the border of an ordinary parking lot lies the most cutting-edge graveyard in the world … and a hands-on lab for cops and forensic anthropologists.

When the gravediggers finished, the crew stood there waiting, their long-sleeved shirts drenched from a mixture of cold rain and sweat. At their feet were the holes—four of them—dug deep into the heavy clay. Nearby, young women and men in rubber gloves and medical gowns prepared to haul the cadavers down the hill.

Picking their way through the barren woodland, they carried 10 bodies to the burial site. Into the first ditch, the widest, they placed six corpses. In the second, they arranged three more. Just one body went into the third grave. The last was left empty. Then the gravediggers picked up their shovels and filled the holes.

Nicknamed “the body farm,” the University of Tennessee’s Forensic Anthropology Center is the oldest and most established of such facilities in the country. Since its inception its wooded acres have been rife with corpses: bodies stuffed inside cars, enshrouded in plastic, rotting in shallow graves. Among them, grad students dutifully clock hours combing corpses for insects, while law enforcement agents undergo crime-scene training exercises.

It’s here, using donated cadavers that scientists have pioneered some of the most innovative techniques in forensic science, particularly, practices that help investigators pinpoint time of death, that linchpin of criminal cases that so often determines whether a killer is charged or set free.

“The research we do at the facility is predominantly based on decomposition,” says center director Dawnie Steadman, “but we’re expanding that tremendously.”

Now, as the bodies rest in those four anonymous graves, the center is primed to undertake a cutting-edge three-year experiment that may help scientists uncover clandestine burial sites in the world’s most dangerous conflict zones. With the help of laser technology, the reach of the body farm is about to grow exponentially, and the findings will shed light on some of history’s most heinous unsolved crimes.

Bass spearheaded the first organized effort to determine what happens when a body rots. He and his students re-created crime scenes, placing bodies in shallow graves and putting them in abandoned cars. The initial investigations were fairly basic: How long until the arms fall off? When does the skull start showing through? How long before all the flesh is gone?

They weren’t surprised to find that temperature figures heavily in the rate of decomposition. A body decays faster in summer than in the winter—therefore more quickly in Florida than in Wisconsin. Is the body in the sun or shade? What was the person wearing? Bodies rot faster in wool than in cotton because wool preserves heat. Gradually, the team developed timelines and statistical formulas that could help estimate, with incredible accuracy, how long a person had been dead based on atmospheric conditions.

There are also the bugs. One of Bass’s graduate students tracked the insects that feed on corpses. Blowflies are first on the scene, and they’re crucial in helping determine time of death. As soon as the flies land, they begin laying eggs in a body’s damp orifices (eyes, mouth, nose, open wounds), and the life cycle of the insects marks the hours since death occurred. The method proved highly accurate when atmospheric conditions were taken into account, and it put entomology at the forefront of forensic science.

As the anthropology program expanded to offer a Ph.D. degree, Bass started running field courses for cops and FBI agents. He became a star member of investigative teams working on tough criminal cases, from serial murders to celebrity plane crashes. Although he’s now retired, he still consults on tough cases. “The smell turns a lot of people off,” Bass says. “But I never see a forensic case as a dead body. I see it as a challenge to figure out who that individual is and what happened to them.”

In the decades since the body farm began, it has schooled hundreds of graduate students, law enforcement agents, and scientists. “It is impressive,” says Frank McCauley, who has worked for 25 years as an agent with the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation. McCauley was a student under Bass, and he regularly attends a recurring week-long course for law enforcement covering the basics of forensic evidence collection. “It arms you with enough knowledge and enough resources to recognize and know what you may have,” he says. “I consider Dr. Bass a national treasure.”

With thousands of people signing up every year to donate their remains to the body farm, the centre continues to grow.

The vast majority of humans who have ever lived share the same fate after death: decomposition. Unless your body is frozen, cremated, or otherwise destroyed after you die, it will inevitably be consumed by bacteria, insects, and animals that recycle your organic substances into new forms of life. Even today, the protection of embalming fluid and wooden caskets doesn’t stop the process — it only delays it slightly. Given how universal decomposition is, it’s a bit surprising that until quite recently, our knowledge of it was fairly thin.

In decomposition there is a whole succession of insects that become interested in a decomposing body, albeit at different times. For instance, most beetles are only interested in the dry, harder tissues such as cartilage and ligaments or mummified skin, not fresh flesh. On the other hand, blowflies only lay eggs when the body is fresh and the resulting maggots only consume tissue when it is still soft. Other species come in to feed more on the maggots than the body. So it is a real potpourri of insect activity during warm months of the year.

They don’t try to control for specific insect species. Their goal is to understand what happens naturally in the environment, though maybe may throw in some cultural variables, like burying a body, placing in a house, with clothing, etc. They want to see what the natural actors in decomposition, especially insects, do when such variables are included.

There are actually a number of clues that help locate a body if they can understand the interaction between a decomposing body and its environment.

For instance, when a body decomposes, and especially when there is maggot activity, the tissues liquefy and pool around the body. This “decomposition pool” kills any vegetation and stains the soil dark brown or black.

So even if a body has been moved, they can see where the body decomposed by the dead grass and discoloured soil. Another visual sign is in burials the soil inside the grave is looser than the soil outside of the grave because it was disturbed to dig the grave. Thus, as time goes on the soil inside the grave begins to settle and may create a depression that is a visual cue of where the grave is when you do a search.

People donate their bodies to  the Forensic Anthropology Center for all sorts of reasons, but mainly because of their great interest in science and they want to contribute. Donating one’s body is indeed a huge contribution to science.

Most people in Knoxville are proud of the Facility and would never dream of doing anything to harm it. They track and map every donor at the Facility, and would definitely know if there was an unexpected body there. And no, they do not do tours. This is out of respect for the anonymity and dignity of the donors and their families and also not to disturb the research that is ongoing.

They take donors from all types of cause of death. Indeed many are natural but some are traumatic (e.g., homicide, suicide or car accident) and they find a way to use every donor for research and/or training.

The facilities currently have over 3000 individuals who have willed their body to them while they are still living.

The Forensic Anthropology Center

The science of human decay

Body Donation

This is just as graphic and confronting as you’d expect it to be. Perhaps even more so. You have been warned. 

WATCH: Take a tour of the world’s largest body farm.

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