I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.
The Body Farm at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville is not a place for the squeamish. The area may have as many as 50 corpses on the ground at any given time slowly decomposing and giving off the sickening odour of putrefaction. But, 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.
Studying the Process of Decomposition
In 1971, 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 help 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 giving clues 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. The size of the maggots tells researchers how much time has passed since the person died. A maggot 15 millimetres long has been feeding for about a week. Studying insect life cycles in this way helps investigators establish time of death.
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.”
Most of the bodies used at the facility are donated, but some are unclaimed cadavers from city morgues.
Facility only for Experts
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 book’s protagonist, consulting forensic pathologist Dr. Kay Scarpetta, undertakes a grisly investigation at the University of Tennessee’s Body Farm.
In 2004, Dr. Bass himself published a non-fiction account of his work, co-written with Jon Jefferson, entitled Death’s Acre: Inside the Legendary Forensic Lab, The Body Farm.
Where the Dead Do Tell Tales
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.
One facility in Texas was intended to conduct research into vulture scavenging but, not surprisingly, nearby residents and a small airport kicked up a fuss over having the birds circling in the sky and dining on the bodies.
However, there are now two body farms in Texas where the effects of decomposition are studied in a variety of topographical and climate conditions.
The science is booming. A body farm opened in Colorado and there are plans for several others.
- 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.
- 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.
© 2016 Rupert Taylor