If the name ‘The Body Farm’ stirs a sense of dread within you, you wouldn’t be the only one. And no, it’s not just the name of the third-rate pre-Halloween movie you went to see last week — it’s actually the most bizarre and one of the most interesting research facilities in the world, where the gruesome effects of decomposition of the human body are studied.
Why create a body farm? The use of forensic pathology of to examine recently deceased human remains is well established. This sort of work can be used to pinpoint a time of death fairly accurately. What is less well known is what happens when a body decomposes to a skeleton, is tarnished by scavengers, or is exposed to the elements for long periods of time — and this is exactly what the Body Farms intend to discover. There are five such facilities presently in operation within the United States. In any one facility, a number of bodies are placed in different environmental settings and left to decompose.
And how does it all work? How decomposition effects human remains is largely due to the environment the body is left in. We’ve talked before about how bodies can be well preserved for centuries and what happens immediately after death. Depending on the environmental conditions, your body could be picked clean by maggots and other decomposing agents within two weeks, or could remain preserved in an airless tomb almost indefinitely. However, in the majority of cases, within several months, decay of tissue within a body will occur to such an extent where it is impossible to visually identify a body, leaving only some or all of a skeleton as a clue.
This is where the forensic anthropologists come in, using the work of the body farms, to determine how decomposition has effected the corpse. The way in which the presence of a decomposing body effects the environment on a micro scale is incredibly fascinating. Experts have managed to chart the rise and fall of entire insect populations based on the addition of a body to the locality. They can also analyse how much of the material from the body has leeched out into the surrounding soil, and over what time period. Such information is obviously useful to future pathologists looking to establish how long a corpse has been there.
Before the body farmers (!) begin their work, they thoroughly document everything on the corpse. Remember this is important work, and a case study so proper documentation enables the results to be properly analysed and conclusions drawn. Now, should you wish, you can leave your body to be studied.
Here are the five facilities that do it, and what they specialise in. They are the five places to leave your body (at the body farm).
1. William H. Bass’s pioneering research facility
The first body farm (inspiring the Patricia Cornwell novel of the same name) was established in 1971 to assist police in examining bodies in criminal cases. Located at the University of Tenesseee, USA, it specialises in exposure. Bodies are left buried, exposed, underwater and even placed within objects (like a car)
2. An unusual mountain retreat
The decomposition facility at Western Carolina University in Cullowhee, USA. This facility studies the decomposition of bodies within the mountains of Carolina. It is also used to train sniffer dogs to hunt for corpses.
3. Vultures in Texas.
The Body Farm at Texas Sate University is a state-of-the-art facility which examines the effects of a wide array of climate conditions on decomposition. It also studies the effect of vulture scavenging on human decomposition. They are currently accepting donors for research purposes.
4. Supermax for cadavers.
The Houston State University Applied Forensic Science Facility trains students, academics, law enforcement and forensic specialists on the application of forensic science to the human body. Cadavers are placed within one acre of maximum-security fencing, surrounded by an additional eight acres of minimum security ground which is used for training search and recovery. The area is entirely remotely monitored to ensure the accurate assessments.
5. The body farm of the future.
The California University of Pennsylvania is the final facility, which seeks to open 45 miles away from the city of Pittsburgh. It will be used for training, but is not yet open. These body farms are not without their controversies. Religious issues alone aside, some people find them morally objectionable. There also are environmental concerns: the Texas-based body farm raised concerns about attracting coyotes, a smell and even buzzards circling the area. Some take the view that more body farms are needed so the effects of exposing a corpse to an even wider array of conditions can be studied.
Your Turn: When it comes to pathology, we think: the more evidence, the better. Would you ever consider leaving your body at a farm? Let us know in the comments.