We recently wrote about body farms (officially known as taphonomic cemeteries), which are research facilities used to study human decomposition. Canadian graduate student Emily Pecsi reached out to us to let us know that the L’Université du Québec à Trois-Rivières is opening Canada’s first body farm!
With some help from forensic scientist Liv Cadola, we discovered some interesting information about the upcoming Site Sécurisé de Recherche en Thanatologie / Secured Research Facility for Thanatology Studies (SSRT). Want to know how many bodies the facility will hold, how researchers study decomposing tattoos, and why Canada needs a body farm? Read our Q&A with Canada’s First Body Farm – Decomposition, Tattooed Bodies, and Solving Crime, to find out!
Q&A with Canada’s First Body Farm
An Interview with Canadian researchers Emily Pecsi and Liv Cadola
Has there been any opposition to opening a body farm in Quebec?
Emily Pecsi: So far, the project has been met with great acceptance and enthusiasm by local and provincial communities. The public seems to value the importance of the research and its future applications in death investigations. Many people are also proud that such a project is taking place within their community. The SSRT also received approval from the bishop of the Catholic Church of Nicolet, a city not too far from where the facility will be located.
Many people are put at ease knowing that the SSRT stresses the importance of security, including treating its donors with respect and dignity. The only concerns that we have received from locals was regarding odours and scavengers. We are able to address these concerns along with questions about insects, risk of disease and increased criminal activity, through a public consultation and in an FAQ published on the SSRT’s website (www.uqtr.ca/ssrt).
Why is it important for Canada/Quebec to have its own body farm?
EP: It’s all about the environment! Factors such as temperature, humidity, soil characteristics, fauna and flora all influence how a body decomposes. Currently, there are only facilities open in the United States, Australia and the Netherlands. None of those facilities have an environment and climate that is similar to Canada, particularly Quebec. Most importantly, none of these places experience harsh winters and spring thaw! Because of these differences, data from other facilities cannot be applied to our geographical region.
If we want a comprehensive understanding of human decomposition in Canada, we need to do research in our own backyard. One day, we hope to have a network of facilities across the country in order to do studies within the many different environments that we have coast-to-coast.
How do you acquire bodies? What is the process?
EP: Only bodies of willed donors will be accepted by the SSRT. All donations will be made through the willed body donation program of UQTR’s anatomy department. The university already has a willed body donation program set up for teaching and research purposes at its anatomy laboratory. All donations are based on informed consent. Prior to donation, an individual interested in donating must contact UQTR’s anatomy lab to request an information package and donation forms. We strongly encourage potential donors to discuss their decision with their family, loved ones and/or next of kin. It is important that the family is comfortable with the decision at the moment of donation.Approaching death or upon death, someone will inform the hospital, nursing home, palliative care or funeral home staff of the individual’s decision to donate. A call to the university will be made, and transport will be arranged. Within a maximum of 48hrs after death, the body will be transported to UQTR’s anatomy lab for registration before being transported and placed within the SSRT. At the anatomy lab, small mesh bags will also be placed around the hands and feet so that the small bones are not lost once the body reaches the skeleton phase. Preliminary observations of the body may also be made and recorded before placement at the SSRT.
When the bodies arrive at the SSRT, they will be placed under a metal wire cage. This cage will prevent scavengers, such as vultures, racoons and foxes, from accessing the body and dispersing the remains. We do this to maintain the dignity and integrity of our donors. Scavenging studies are instead carried out using pig carcasses at a separate location.
How many donors will you accept annually?
EP: Due to the size of the site, the SSRT will hold a maximum of 10 bodies at a given time. Some space needs to be kept between each body in order to avoid cross-contamination. The number of accepted donors will vary depending on the studies taking place and the rate of decomposition.
What are some of the environmental conditions and locations bodies will be studied in?
EP: The SSRT will be located within the Parc Industriel et Portuaire de Bécancour (approx. 25km from the city of Trois-Rivières, Québec). The facility will be within a mixed temperate forest, which is quite common throughout the province of Quebec and Ontario. The bodies will be left outdoors and exposed to the elements year-round (sun, rain, snow, cold weather, warm weather) because we are particularly interested in how human decomposition progresses in a Canadian environment.
Early studies at the SSRT will predominantly involve bodies that are deposited on the surface, but some donors will also be placed in shallow graves also.
There is a growing proliferation of tattoos. Are tattooed bodies being studied at body farms?
Liv Cadola: Yes, indeed tattoos are extremely common in both sexes and through all age groups and when they are sufficiently distinctive they may provide information on the identity of an individual. That is why tattoos are one of the research foci at the facility. We are interested in determining how long a tattoo will be visible on human remains and in evaluating different methods for recovering the tattoo, even after it is no longer visible to the naked eye due to the process of decomposition. We are currently working with two tattoo artists (Frères d’Encre) from the area for a first experiment on pigs.
What happens to bodies after research is completed?
Emily Pecsi: Once research is completed, or the retention period of 3 years has past, all remains of an individual will be collected and cremated. Even if almost all tissue has been lost during decomposition, the bones will make up a significant part of the cremation ashes. Family members, loved ones, and/or next of kin can then collect the ashes. Every year, the anatomy department holds a religious mass and ceremony for friends and family in order to commemorate and thank all of the generous donors.
What is the main misconception people have about body farms?
EP: The main misconceptions are about the odor and the risk of disease or contamination. It is often assumed that decomposition odour travels great distances, which isn’t necessarily true. Many people assume that the bodies used will be those of unclaimed or unidentified individuals. That assumption often stems from the idea that decomposition is undignified, and that traditional methods of body disposition (interment, cremation, mausoleum) are the only way to show the deceased respect.
In fact, many of our donors are extremely enthusiastic and proud about donating their bodies to the project! Donors have many reasons for participating in decomposition research. Some value the advancement of research and education, while others like the idea of indirectly serving justice beyond the grave. Due to the popularity of TV shows like CSI and Bones, many donors also wish to participate in forensics due to their genuine interest in the field.
Thank you to Emily Pesci and Liv Cadola for taking the time to answer our questions! You can find out more by visiting the SSRT’s website: www.uqtr.ca/ssrt
Emily Pesci recently graduated from Concordia University with a BSc in Biology and a minor in Multidisciplinary Studies of Science. Following an internship in the anatomy lab at the Université du Québec à Trois-Rivières (UQTR), she was approached to join the SSRT project to follow and document the facility’s establishment process. Based on these records, Emily will be writing guidelines on how to establish Canadian taphonomic research facilities in an effort to help future researchers create their own body farms. She is planning to soon begin her PhD in Biomedical Sciences at UQTR. Her doctoral project will involve looking at the long-term impact that human decomposition has on groundwater and soil bacterial communities within a Canadian environment.
Liv Cadola has a bachelor and a master degree in forensic science from the University of Lausanne in Switzerland. She is currently working on her doctoral thesis in the field of document examination and she will be teaching the document examination class at UQTR in September. She is also a researcher at the Laboratoire de Recherche en Criminalistique.