Throw on a lab coat, secure the ugly protective goggles, make sure there is a pair of forceps in the research bag and hope your nose isn’t stuffed, because it’s time to visit the farm.
They’re called body farms, to be exact, and there are only five in the nation, with the newest facility at California University of Pennsylvania open since mid-2011.
Ranging from an upscale 59-square-foot garage at Western Carolina University to a whopping five-acre facility at Texas State University, these farms were created to help forensic students, anthropologists and FBI trainees study forensic taphonomy, or what physically happens to a body between death and the time it is discovered.
Let me repeat that. There is a five-acre crop of land somewhere in Texas that holds burned, chopped and dismembered bodies all throughout, just waiting for students and investigators to find, excavate, sniff and study them.
Some components of body decomposition the researchers study include skin peeling, insect presence, bacteria presence, smell emission and how long the decomposition takes. Studying these aspects can help forensic authorities estimate a person’s time of death and whether it happened days, weeks or even months before their body’s discovery.
Sometimes, if the bodies have been decomposing long enough, squirrels feed on the human bones and gnaw at the ends to reach the marrow. These anthropology and forensic science courses are so intricate, body farm students and researchers can even distinguish between old and new gnaw marks to help obtain decomposition data and times of death.
The bodies can come from two places. Medical examiners sometimes donate the bodies to the farm, but more often people pre-donate their bodies to science before that has to happen. Some forensic centers receive as few as five to 10 donated bodies a year, but others such as the Forensic Anthropology Center at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville have about 2,000 pre-donors on file who are ready to bestow their remains to the cause after death.
While a couple of the farms serve strictly educational purposes, the one in Knoxville, Tenn., is used to both train criminal investigators and perform original research.
This was the original body farm, started by anthropologist William M. Bass in 1981 as a means to study human remains’ decomposition.
According to the Forensic Anthropology Center’s website, many courses are held on the farm. Most last only a week, others last through a full semester and some others are offered to the FBI’s Emergency Response Team or the National Forensic Academy for forensic evidence gathering.
Since then, two body farms in Texas (Texas State University in San Marcos and Sam Houston State University in Huntsville), one in North Carolina (Western Carolina University in Cullowhee), and the nation’s most recent farm in California, Penn., have sprouted and began to contribute to all the original research and data to be collected from these facilities.
What makes each farm’s research so original is the difference in climate conditions among them.
Precipitation, temperature and humidity all have some kind of effect on a body, and it is important that researchers consider all of these when surveying remains.
A fairly humid and dry climate in Texas would speed remains’ decomposition rates while cold temperatures generally slow the decay process, according to the Explore Forensics website.
Even the vultures that feed on the remains at Texas State are able to help contribute to an area of decomposition studies that aim to answer questions about outdoor crimes and decay rates.
Once all the remains’ scientific purpose has been served, the forensic facilities provide them with a proper burial before they move onto their next donated body. While this seems like just another book page turned, starting things over with a new body could turn over a whole new leaf with each new creative way to decompose the corpse.
Perhaps some people have already rethought that little red heart on the backs of their drivers’ licences, but all this just puts a whole new depth and need to contemplate the question, “Would you like to declare yourself a donor?”