I've spent half a century writing for radio and print (mostly print). I hope to still be tapping the keys as I take my last breath.
Where the Dead Do Tell Tales
The University of Tennessee's Forensic Anthropology Center is not a place for the squeamish. Known as a body farm, it covers just 2.5 acres and is the resting place for as many as 50 bodies at a time, giving off the unpleasant odour of putrefaction.
There is a serious scientific purpose to this grisly business in helping forensic anthropologists and criminal investigators understand the timing of death and the circumstances under which it might have occurred. But there's more, according to the people at Tennessee's facility:
“Body farms have helped us to identify the victims of genocide, to verify historical sites, and even find bodies of missing persons.”
Most of the bodies used at the facility are donated, but some are unclaimed cadavers from city morgues.
Studying the Process of Decomposition
In 1977, anthropologist Dr. William M. Bass began setting up the Forensic Anthropology Center at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville.
Dr. Bass had been called in by police to help with an investigation that involved a disturbed grave. Initially, he told investigators that a body in the grave was that of a white male who had been dead about a year.
But something bothered him, so he kept probing. Dr. Bass eventually discovered that the body was that of a Civil War rebel officer whose remains had been preserved in an airtight coffin.
In 1981, the university opened the body farm where corpses are laid out in an open woodland area. Since then, other body farms have been opened in Texas and North Carolina, and there are now about a dozen such facilities around the world.
The goal is to study the decomposition process of a human body in natural settings. In October 2000, Michele Dula Baum and Toria Tolley of CNN reported that the bodies are “stuffed into car trunks, left lying in the sun or shade, buried in shallow graves, covered with brush, or submerged in ponds.”
The data gathered from studying the decay in minute detail helps police investigators identify crime victims and how they died, determine time of death, and provide a host of vital information to pathologists and prosecutors.
Insects give clues to time of death. In a National Geographic documentary of the Tennessee body farm, Dr. Murray Marks explains some of the processes.
Blowflies and maggots are important in providing signals to how long a body has been dead. The first flies will arrive within half an hour of death and begin their work. “What they look for are the orifices,” says Dr. Marks. “The nose, the mouth, the ears, the ground/body interface where it’s going to be shaded.”
Once the flies have found the right spot, they lay eggs that, within a day, hatch into maggots that begin feeding on the corpse. Researchers can tell how long the body has been dead from the size of the maggots; a maggot half an inch long has been feeding for about a week.
Studying insect life cycles in this way helps investigators establish time of death. Following insects, the mice arrive and then the snakes, each setting up a short-term food chain that can be used to determine time of death.
Orrin Grey, writing for the-line-up.com, notes that “Decaying bodies also produce certain chemicals in a certain order, and so finding those chemicals can help searchers to locate bodies.”
Body Farm Teaches Investigators
An important part of the work at the Forensic Anthropology Center is teaching police and other university researchers about investigative techniques.
BBC News reports that the faculty holds “Intensive 10-week courses . . . on the farm for investigators from police agencies around the U.S. They learn the proper way to dig up and retrieve a buried body.”
They also help to train cadaver dogs that are used to find bodies and are aiding in the development of high-tech devices for locating human remains.
The British news organization quotes Dr. Bass as saying: “We have certainly helped a lot of people solve a lot of crimes and put some bad people in prison.”
Facility for Experts Only
The body farm is surrounded by a high wooden fence and razor wire to keep out those with a ghoulish bent and to protect the dignity of the residents.
The institution makes a point of noting that it does not allow public visits even though it gets plenty of requests, a couple even from cub scout groups.
There was a spike in requests for tours after the publication of Patricia Cornwell’s 1995 book The Body Farm. The central character in the novel, forensic pathologist Dr. Kay Scarpetta, conducts a macabre investigation at the University of Tennessee’s body farm.
Multiple Body Farms
Other body farms have been opened to expand on the pioneering work done at Knoxville.
The Forensic Osteology Research Station of Western Carolina University was opened in 2006 to study decomposition in a mountain environment.
There was a plan to set up a body farm in Texas to study the scavenging habits of vultures, but there was opposition. Nearby residents did not like the idea of flocks of carrion birds circling in the sky above their potential meals. A small airport had understandable objections as well. Not-in-my-back-yardism does sometimes have a legitimate gripe.
However, Texas does have a couple of body farms where decomposition is studied in a variety of climatic and topographical conditions.
The science is booming. A body farm has opened in Colorado and there is a cold weather facility attached to the Northern Michigan University near Marquette. At the other end of the climate scale, there was a body farm in the steamy heat of southern Florida at the University of South Florida, Tampa; it is in the process of finding a new location.
- Before body farms were set up, scientists studied decomposition in pigs because the animals are close, physiologically, to humans.
- The William M. Bass Donated Skeletal Collection, Knoxville, Tennessee, is the largest of its kind in the world. Researchers come from all over the globe to learn how to read bones to identify age, sex, trauma, age-at-death, even likely occupations.
- One thing forensic pathologists look for at a crime scene is rigor mortis. It begins in the face after five to seven hours and is established throughout the body after about 12 hours. After 24 hours rigor mortis begins to disappear and is completely gone 36 hours after death.
- Murder investigators always look for a watch in their early search for evidence. If the body has fallen heavily a watch might have been broken giving a good indication of time of death. An accurate time of death is important in eliminating suspects or pointing the finger at possible perpetrators.
- “Tennessee's Body Farm: A Journey to the Forensic Land of the Dead.” Orrin Grey, the-line-up.com, January 23, 2020.
- Forensic Anthropology Center, University of Tennessee.
- “Pastoral Putrefaction Down on the Body Farm.” Michele Dula Baum and Toria Tolley, CNN, October 31, 2000.
- “Secrets of the Body Farm.” National Geographic, 2011.
- “Life on Tennessee’s Body Farm.” BBC News, July 3, 2005.
- “These 6 ‘Body Farms’ Help Forensic Anthropologists Learn to Solve Crimes.” Kristina Killgrove, Forbes, June 10, 2015.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2022 Rupert Taylor