Forensic Body Farms: What You Need to Know
WARNING: This post about forensic body farms contains text and images which may be disturbing to some.
What is a Body Farm?
A body farm (officially known as a taphonomic cemetery) is a research facility used to study human decomposition. By studying a number of corpses at varying rates of decay, investigators are better able to determine how and when any given person died. Body farms can be found in a number of countries around the world, and they are used by police forces to help determine the cause and time of death during investigations.
Dead bodies undergo various biological and chemical phases. These phases are rather standard, but can be affected by climate, clothing, animals and other environmental factors. By studying these phases, including when animals or insects begin to feed on corpses, forensic scientists are able to better determine a time frame of the death. For example, if a body is found in the woods, and there are insects at a certain level of development on or in the body, investigators can determine how long the body has been at its present location.
After many years and two replacement stoves, I had learned not to do this at home...
History of Body Farms
The first body farm was started by forensic anthropologist Dr. William M. Bass at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. Dr. Bass saw a need for a dedicated centre to study bodies in order to help determine cause and time of death. As Dr. Bass puts it in his book Death’s Acre, the process of studying decomposition was a rather DIY affair until he opened his centre: “after many years and two replacement stoves, I had learned not to do this at home.” It also grew out of Dr. Bass’ humbling experience of misjudging a body’s ‘time since death’ by 112 years! Clearly, there had to be a better way.
The body farm opened in 1972 at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville on a plot of 2.5 acres. It currently receives over 100 donated bodies a year.
What Happens When a Body Decomposes?
Decomposition is a rather standard affair. After death, bodies begin to cool. Mary Roach, author of Stiff, writes that “barring temperature extremes, corpses lose about 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit per hour until they reach the temperature of the air around them.” While cooling occurs, the body’s cells begin to build up with toxins. When the cells build up with too many toxins, they burst. In the process, bacteria begin to feed on the corpse since they are no longer being fed by a living body.
At this point, bodies will begin to bloat. Since bodies can no longer get rid of gas naturally (insert: fart joke), it builds up until it can be forcefully released through the skin. Flies will have begun laying eggs on the body, usually near any natural cavities. Larvae will grow and feed on the body and if the body is exposed outside, other animals will also show up. These stages and processes will change depending on weather, environmental, and physiological factors.
Body farms study decay and decomposition by letting bodies decompose in a number of scenarios. Bodies are usually placed in a wire cage outdoors, which prevents large animals from taking the bodies (unless that is part of an experiment). Bodies may be placed in the shade, in the sun, under foliage, in water, in the trunk of a car, naked or with clothes on, etc. By narrowing each scenario, investigators are better able to determine the time of death.
Where do Body Farms Find Bodies?
Bodies end up at body farms in a number of ways. Bodies that are unclaimed will sometimes be ‘donated’ by medical examiner’s offices to body farms. Family members are also able to donate the bodies of their loved ones. Lastly, and most commonly, you can donate your body to a body farm (post-mortem, of course), by filling out a consent form. In fact, the number of body donations has grown to the point where some body farms deny more donors than they accept.
What Happens to the Bodies After?
After a body has been studied, it will either be given back to the family for burial, it may be cremated by the facility, or donated to medical schools and laboratories for further examination. At the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, bodies are given to the WM Bass Donated Skeletal Collection, where “every individual donated to the skeletal collection is also used to educate, train, and provide a resource for research in forensic taphonomy.”
Can I Visit a Body Farm?
Short answer: No. As far as we can tell, most body farms do not allow members of the public to tour their facilities. Anthropologists, forensic scientists and journalists are typically the only people allowed to visit body farms…and the bodies, of course.
How Can I Donate my Body to a Body Farm?
Each research facility will have its own rules and regulations regarding body donations. Click on the locations below to find out more.
Where Can I Find a Body Farm?
Body farms can be found in the following locations:
United States: University of Tennessee in Knoxville / Western Carolina University / Texas State University / Sam Houston State University / Southern Illinois University / Colorado Mesa University / University of South Florida.
Amsterdam: Amsterdam UMC
Wales: Glyndŵr University
Canada: Université du Québec à Trois-Rivières: Canada’s first body farm is set to open in 2019 in the province of Québec. Keep an eye out for an upcoming interview with staff at the centre! To find out about body donations, visit this link.