The Body Farm

Monday, November 2nd, 2009

After having spoken with some friends and colleagues recently, it became apparent that the field of forensic anthropology was not well known. This surprised me because I assumed that everyone had heard of the Body Farm – not just the book by Patricia Cornwell, but the place for which the book was named.

For those who don’t know or who are interested in a career in forensic anthropology or other related fields (forensic entomology and such like) the Body Farm is the informal name for the Anthropological Research Facility at the Forensic Anthropology Centre, Department of Anthropology, University of Tennessee, USA. It was founded by William Bass in 1980 in order to answer some of the many questions about how the human body decomposes in different environmental conditions after death.

At that time, even very basic questions about forensic anthropology had not been answered, so Dr Bass started by just lying a corpse out on the ground and, with the help of students, observed and recorded what happened to the corpse over time.  It takes a very special sort of person to handle this kind of research….

Over the years, the Body Farm has answered many basic questions, such as how a body decomposes in the boot of a car in mid summer – which they tested by putting a body in the boot of a car and watching what happened. Or how a body decomposes when submerged in water or at what stage after death bodies float in water (apparently, some float like a cork from the get-go, others sink like a stone).  They also buried bodies and then exhumed them to see what happened, and also set fire to them.  They did have problems at the start with people not realising that real human cadavers were strewn about an area of (fenced) wasteland to rot at their leisure but it seems that things have sorted themselves out now.  The research facility receives quite a lot of donated bodies (a kind of full menu of organ donation), which is the ultimate recycling program as far as I can see.

The answers to the questions that the Body Farm has answered seem to be something we all assume have always been known, but the research coming out of the Body Farm is constantly answering new questions that arise in case work. As I always say, no two cases are ever the same, no matter how similar they appear.  If you’re interested in reading more about it, I recommend Death’s Acre: Inside the Legendary ‘Body Farm’ by Bill Bass and Jon Jefferson, 2003.  Fascinating – and, for those of a more sensitive disposition, hardly any gore at all.

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