Having grown up on a cattle ranch that disposed of its dead cows in a boneyard, I thought I was pretty immune to being grossed out by death and decay, but I was wrong wrong wrong. This weekend I saw a program on the Discovery Channel about the Body Farm and it fascinated me, captivated me, and above all grossed me totally and completely out.
Dr. William Bass had held a job for eleven years in Kansas as Forensic Anthropologist before he joined the staff at the University of Tennessee. In Kansas he'd dealt mainly with skeletal remains because of the lower population density. Bodies in Tennessee rarely were allowed to become skeletons before being discovered. All of a sudden Dr. Bass was being asked not only about the cause of death, but about how long the body had been lying there, and he found that there was virtually no information on the subject available. Dr. Bass asked the Dean of the University for a small piece of land where he could study how corpses decay. He got it, and in 1971 the University of Tennessee Forensic Anthropology Facility was formed. The name "Body Farm", coined by Knoxville police in the 1980's, took hold when novelist Patricia Cornwell did research and used the facility as the setting for a book of that title in 1994.
The Body Farm is fairly small, only 3 acres in size. It's located about a 3 minute walk from the University of Tennessee Medical Center in Knoxville, Tennessee. At any given time up to 40 bodies are decaying at the site. Some are stuffed in car trunks, some left in the hot sun, some partially buried and some submerged in a pond. Students at the facility take note of insect actions, tissue degradation, amino acid breakdown and other processes that help pinpoint exactly how the human body decomposes under specific conditions. This is especially important in crime investigation where determining the precise time of death is often crucial.
The information gained at the Body Farm is so important that the FBI sends agents down once a year to train. Body Farm workers simulate five crime scenes for the agents and the agents' job is to discover the bodies and unravel the clues presented. Graduates of the Body Farm have been crucial in investigating high profile crimes such as Mexican drug-cartel murders, the mass graves in Kosovo, and murders all over the world.
Where do all these bodies come from? Some are corpses of criminals whose relatives won’t pay to bury them. Some are unclaimed corpses. But more than 100 people, many of them academics and professionals, have signed up on their own for afterlife on the farm. There is a waiting list.
After the Body Farm is done with a corpse, the body is "processed" to be stored. The bones are steam cleaned in a mixture of bleach and detergent and placed in a small cardboard box (about 3'x1'x1'). These boxes are stored on wire racks in a small room in the Anthropology department at the University. Each is labeled with the sex, age, and cause of death. Names have been long forgotten by this time.