A body farm is a research facility where human decomposition can be studied in a variety of settings. The aim is to gain a better understanding of the decomposition process, permitting the development of techniques for extracting information (such as the timing and circumstances of death) from human remains. Body farm research is particularly important within forensic anthropology and related disciplines, and has applications in the fields of law enforcement and forensic science. Five such facilities exist in the United States, with the research facility operated by Texas State University at Freeman Ranch being the largest at seven acres.
Facilities in the United States
University of Tennessee at Knoxville
The original "Body Farm" is the University of Tennessee Anthropological Research Facility located a few miles from downtown on Alcoa Highway in Knoxville, Tennessee, behind the University of Tennessee Medical Center. It was first started in late 1981 by anthropologist Dr. William M. Bass as a facility for study of the decomposition of human remains. Dr. Bass became head of the university's anthropology department in 1971, and as official state forensic anthropologist for Tennessee he was frequently consulted in police cases involving decomposed human remains. Since no facilities existed that specifically studied decomposition, in 1981 he opened the department's first body farm.
It consists of a 2.5-acre (10,000 m2) wooded plot, surrounded by a razor wire fence. At any one time there will be a number of bodies placed in different settings throughout the facility and left to decompose. The bodies are exposed in a number of ways in order to provide insights into decomposition under varying conditions. Detailed observations and records of the decomposition process are kept, including the sequence and speed of decomposition and the effects of insect activity.
Over 100 bodies are donated to the facility every year. Some individuals pre-register before their death, and others are donated by their families or by a medical examiner. 60% of donations are made by family members of individuals who were not pre-registered with the facility. Over 1300 people have chosen to pre-register themselves. Perhaps the most famous person to donate his body for study was the anthropologist Grover Krantz, as described by his colleague David Hunt at the Smithsonian.
The University of Tennessee Body Farm is also used in the training of law enforcement officers in scene-of-crime skills and techniques.
Western Carolina University
The second human decomposition facility to open in the United States is located at Western Carolina University in Cullowhee, North Carolina and is part of the Western Carolina Human Identification Laboratory. The facility is known as the Forensic Osteology Research Station or more commonly as the FOREST. It was opened in 2006 and is run by WCU's Forensic Anthropology program on a small plot on the rural mountain campus. The facility studies decomposition in the western North Carolina mountain habitat and has been used for cadaver dog training.
Texas State University
A Forensic Anthropology Research Facility was commissioned by the Texas State University-San Marcos Department of Anthropology and is under the direction of Dr. Michelle Hamilton, a former student of Dr. Bill Bass. The forensic research facility is fully operational and is part of the Forensic Anthropology Center at Texas State (FACTS). The forensic facility has received a financial donation of over $100,000 from a Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Texas State University, and has started construction of an adjoining million dollar lab to augment the facility. The development of this facility has been possible through the efforts of Dr. Jerry Melbye, D-ABFA.
Prior to the selection of the location, objections by local residents and the nearby San Marcos Municipal Airport (owing to concerns about circling vultures) stalled the plan. But on February 12, 2008, Texas State University announced that its Freeman Ranch, off County Road 213 northwest of San Marcos, would be the site of the facility.
The vultures that originally created problems for the location of the research facility have provided a new area of study on the effect of vulture scavenging on human decomposition.
The Forensic Anthropology Research Facility (FARF) is a human decomposition research laboratory where questions related to outdoor crime scenes and decomposition rates for human remains under various topographical and climate conditions are investigated. The FARF serves as a resource for students of forensic anthropology as well as state and national law enforcement agencies. The work conducted here will have a direct impact on law enforcement and forensic investigations throughout the state of Texas, and beyond.
The Forensic Anthropology Center at Texas State accepts body donations for scientific research purposes under the Uniform Anatomical Gift Act. The areas of research conducted with donated bodies will include reconstructing the postmortem interval to determine time since death and related studies in human decomposition. The overall aim of this type of research is to assist law enforcement agents and the medico-legal community in their investigations.
While practical restraints currently limit the Forensic Anthropology Research Facility to only around seven acres in the Texas Hill Country, Freeman Ranch has about 4,200 acres (17 km2) available. Freeman Ranch is a working ranch that also serves as an educational model for ranch management. It is an area of land for educational outreach and research. Researchers and students visit the ranch and participate in educational activities and projects. Researchers and students are allowed to conduct experiments and studies at the ranch, including forensic anthropology.
Sam Houston State University
The Southeast Texas Applied Forensic Science Facility aka. STAFS is a state-of-the-art research and training facility designed to advance academic and technical knowledge in the application of forensic science disciplines to crime scenes and criminal activities. The facility's predominant focus of study is the application of forensic sciences to the human body and the vast amount of evidence that can be gleaned from the careful recognition, collection, and preservation of that evidence. The facility is recognized by the Anatomical Board of Texas as a willed-body donor facility, and accepts human body donations for the purposes of scientific research.
The facility trains students, law enforcement officials, academicians and forensic specialists.
The facility is located within the Center for Biological Field Studies at Sam Houston State University, a 247-acre (100 ha) parcel of land adjacent to the Sam Houston National Forest. One acre of maximum security fencing surrounds the outdoor research facility with an additional 8 acres (32,000 m2) of minimum security reserved for other types of forensic training such as search and recovery maneuvers. Contained within the outdoor facility are a variety of various environmental conditions, including a fluvial environment. Web cams are located within the outdoor facility to monitor timing of various post-mortem activities from on and off-campus computers.
The building is designed as a morgue with cooler and freezer units, modern morgue equipment and tools and digital radiograph and microscope capabilities.
The environment in southeast Texas is quite different from the environment of East Tennessee. East Tennessee's mean annual temperature is 67 °F (19 °C). The Huntsville, TX area's mean annual temperature is 75 °F (23 °C). Temperature, along with many other factors, affect the decomposition process, and therefore difference in temperature will produce different decomposition results.
Southern Illinois University
The Complex for Forensic Anthropology Research (CFAR) opened at Southern Illinois University (Carbondale, IL) in October 2010 working with pigs as human proxies. The co-founders, Gretchen R. Dabbs and D.C. Martin, built the facility to examine the rate and pattern of decomposition in the unique environment of southern Illinois. In comparison to the other facilities open at the time, CFAR has the lowest average temperature, highest average wind speed, second lowest elevation, the most acidic soil, and the worst soil drainage. Since climate and environment are major factors affecting the rate and pattern of decomposition, these differences between southern Illinois and the other established facilities were expected (and have proven) to heavily influence the rate and pattern of decomposition. The first human donation was accepted at CFAR in January 2012.
CFAR is a unit within the Department of Anthropology (College of Liberal Arts) at SIU. It is approximately 0.33 acres of grassland surrounded by privacy fencing with razor wire. Outdoor cameras are used to monitor access for security purposes and record research events. Current research focuses on establishing the baseline rate and pattern of decomposition in the unique southern Illinois environment. Additionally, researchers at CFAR attempt to mimic clandestine body disposal situations and understand how the process of decomposition is altered by those postmortem treatments and how the postmortem treatment can be identified after skeletonization.
The faculty and staff of CFAR also participate in forensic anthropology consultations and provide training seminars for local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies.
There have been proposals to open body farms in other locations in the U.S. and elsewhere. Few of these have been successful as yet; for example, a facility in Las Vegas was proposed in 2003 but was unable to secure funding.
Roma Khan of India is taking initial steps toward establishing a body farm in India along the lines of those in the U.S.
In popular culture
The concept of a body farm in general as well as the existing institutions in particular have been used in several crime-related works of popular culture. Notable examples include:
- Patricia Cornwell's novel The Body Farm is based on the University of Tennessee facility, but not on actual events surrounding it. The character of Dr. Thomas Katz was based upon Dr. Bill Bass. In his book, Death's Acre, which has a foreword by Cornwell, Bass and co-author Jon Jefferson describe the experiment he undertook on her behalf. A similar experiment conducted by the fictional Dr. Katz solves the book's mystery.
- Authors Jon Jefferson and Bill Bass have published a number of fictional murder mystery novels based on the body farm at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville under the pseudonym Jefferson Bass. The lead character is based on Bill Bass.
- In the British television series Waking the Dead, forensic pathologist Dr Eve Lockhart has her own body farm. She reappears in a spin-off series The Body Farm.
- In the US show Rizzoli and Isles, the Chief Medical examiner of Massachusetts Dr Maura Isles has a Giant African Spur Tortoise called 'Bass' after William M. Bass.
- During episode #6.17 of Fox's television series Bones entitled "The Feet on the Beach", medical anthropologist Dr. Temperance Brennan and her partner FBI Special Agent Seeley Booth visit a fictional body farm at the University of Hogansburg, New York.
- In episode #2.15 of CSI: Crime Scene Investigation entitled "Burden of Proof" a murder victim's body is dumped at the Body Farm among other bodies.
- Simon Beckett's novel Whispers of the Dead is set in and around the body farm in Knoxville, Tennessee. It is the third book in a series centered around protagonist Dr David Hunter, a forensic anthropologist. The series itself was inspired by Beckett's visit to the body farm in Tennessee.
- During episode #2 of the documentary series Stephen Fry in America, host Stephen Fry visits the University of Tennessee Anthropological Research Facility.
- In episode #3.2 of Law and Order: SVU entitled "Wrath" several murder victims' bodies are dumped at the Body Farm among other bodies.
- Bass & Jefferson, chapter 7
- "Body donation". University of Tennessee Forensic Anthropology Center. Retrieved 2011-02-25.
- Hunt, David (2008). "Epilogue". In Krantz, Grover S. Only a Dog. ISBN 978-988-17-3241-5.
- "National Forensic Academy: Facilities". University of Tennessee Institute for Public Service. Retrieved 2008-03-26.[dead link]
- "Western Carolina Human Identification Laboratory". Western Carolina University. Archived from the original on 2008-02-22. Retrieved 2008-03-27.
- "Forensic Anthropology Center Faculty". Texas State University. Retrieved 2009-11-28.
- "Vultures pick off human body farm". BBC. 2007-05-11. Retrieved 2006-05-11.
- "Texas State Forensic Research Facility to locate at Freeman Ranch". Texas State University. Retrieved 2008-02-12.
- "Listening to the Bones - Texas State opens the world's largest forensic anthropology research facility". The Austin Chronicle. Retrieved 2008-04-04.
- Reeves, NM 2009 Taphonomic Effects of Vulture Scavenging. Journal of Forensic Sciences 54:523-528.
- "Listening to the Bones Texas State opens the world's largest forensic anthropology research facility". The Austin Chronicle. Retrieved 2009-11-27.
- "Introduction to Freeman Ranch". Retrieved 2009-11-27.
- "Freeman Ranch: About Us". Texas State University. Retrieved 2009-11-27.
- "STAFS Official Website". Sam Houston State University, Department of Criminal Justice. Retrieved 200-11-23.
- "STAIFS Research". Sam Houston State University, Department of Criminal Justice. Retrieved 200-11-23.
- "Bone-dry dreams of a body farm". Las Vegas Sun. Retrieved 2008-03-27.
- Katherine Ramsland. "The Body Farm". truTV.com. Retrieved 2010-03-26.
- "Official Website: About the Author". Retrieved 2012-09-10.
- Bass, Bill & Jefferson, Jon. Death's Acre: Inside the Legendary 'Body Farm' . Time Warner 2003, 300pp. ISBN 0-316-72527-7
- Roach, Mary. Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers. W.W. Norton, 2003. 224pp. ISBN 978-0-393-32482-2
- The Forensic Anthropology Center at the University of Tennessee - Knoxville
- Death's Acre by Dr. William Bass and Jon Jefferson
- Bone Zones for Jefferson Bass Books
- Forensic Anthropology at Texas State
- The Western Carolina University Forensic Anthropology Program
- Crime Library article on the U.T. body farm
- Salon.com excerpt from Mary Roach's "Stiff", about the U.T. body farm
- Jefferson Bass official web site