The Body Farm – University of Tennessee: Forensic Anthropology Center

The Body Farm – University of Tennessee: Forensic Anthropology Center

by Emmanuel Paige (published in Macabre Cadaver magazine 2010)

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Would you like to donate your body to science? Not in the traditional fashion where cadavers are donated to universities to be dissected in anatomy classes by premed students, but in a more natural scientific program that involves forensic research and the study of human decomposition. If so, you could donate your body to the Forensic Anthropology Center at the University of Tennessee. They have created a “body farm” where they research the dynamics of decomposition in nature and how it affects human bodies and crime scenes. The cadavers at the body farm are in differing stages of decay, some are only hours, days, and weeks old, and others are months or even years old, and when nothing is left but bones, the skeleton is removed, steam cleaned and stored away for future reference.

The FBI routinely trains at the body farm. They learn through classroom lectures and hands-on experience in the recovery of human remains. Much like what you might see on the popular crime drama television series programs like CSI, Bones, NCIS and many others, researchers at the body farm are often criminologists and special agents, such as the FBI, who use cutting edge technology and science to solve usually horrific and gruesome crimes, the only difference is that this is the real thing. This is not fiction and it isn’t as glamorous as any TV show with handsome actors and high-end special effects. This is the body farm, a small plot of land at the research facility located in a secluded area behind the University of Tennessee Medical Center. The project was first started by Dr. William M. Bass in 1971 and it was only a small experiment in the beginning with a few John and Jane Does and a small fenced in area, but more recently in its current location, since 1980, it has expanded into a two and a half acre plot covered with woods and protected by a security fence and cameras.

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The information gathered by researchers at the body farm can help to understand the minute details of decomposition and how it affects a crime scene; it will help with solving present and future crimes where murder victims have undergone decomposition and the elements of nature have slowly erased important clues and other forensic evidence. It is part forensic anthropology, part biochemistry, and the study of decomposition and entomology, all combined with osteological teaching methods. In addition to the body farm, there is also a vast collection of bones that have been gathered over the years. According to the UTFAC website, “We have many resources for students, researchers, and law enforcement agencies. These include skeletal collections, decomposition facilities, and more.” The collection is known as The William Bass Forensic Skeletal Collection. “Various types of perimortem trauma are represented in this collection such as gunshot wounds, stabbing and other sharp force injury, and blunt force trauma.” The collection is demographically diverse and consists of nearly 650 skeletons and is ever expanding.

At first, researchers had to look for participants from the local morgue, but now people are literally dying to get in and become part of the research project. Scores of people have donated their bodies and the list of applicants is ever increasing as word gets out about the body farm. The process of donating your body is fairly simple. There is a routine form to fill out located at the UTFAC website, available in a PDF for perusal and download. After submitting an application, donors are pre-screened and selected while they are alive and then after they pass away, assuring that they are of sound quality for the research and to ensure the safety of the researchers to avoid contamination or infection from disease. Once the cadavers are acquired they are taken to the body farm and placed sometimes in a random fashion and at other times in various scenarios to simulate a true homicide crime scene, and then they are left to let nature take its course, continually observed by cameras and frequent visits from the researchers.

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 There is much that can be learned through the observation of the insects and small animals that visit the bodies during decomposition in the wild. Researchers can use logic and deduction from the information they retrieve from these observations. One such method involves knowing the amount of time it takes a blowfly egg to hatch and for the maggots to mature. Researchers have gathered volumes of data on the blowfly maggot and what part it plays in the process of decay; with this information they can determine the time of death to the exact hour. After the blowfly maggot is gone, there are still other insects and animals, such as beetles and rats, which do their part to break down the remains. These little creatures are the forensic helpers that unwittingly leave a chain of clues behind that can be used as accurate records of the history of the crime scene. Additionally, when there is nothing left except bones, researchers are perfecting facial reconstruction from the bare skull or even fragments of bone, and can actually get a nearly perfect resemblance of what that person looked like while alive. It is an exact science, and the more researchers learn at the body farm the better they can solve what were once virtually unsolvable crimes.

It may sound macabre at first, and it is, but this is actually a very dignified program and they have a reverence for each subject that is so humane that it seems like a very good final resting place. Now, even in death, people can still lend a helping hand in fighting crime, literally, and the world will ultimately be a better place as a result. If you are interested in learning more about the body farm, or taking part in the experiment, please visit their website:  http://web.utk.edu/~fac/

Works Cited

1.    “University of Tennessee: Forensic Anthropology Center.” Web.utk.edu. Web. 14 Aug. 2010. <http://web.utk.edu/~fac/facilities.shtml>.
2.     “FBI — Body Farm – Press Room – Headline Archives 07-07-09.” FBI — Federal Bureau of Investigation Homepage. Web. 15 Aug. 2010. <http://www.fbi.gov/page2/july09/bodyfarm_070709.html>.

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