Updated: Oct 19, 2022
We're going to talk about true crime today, but I’m not going to be covering a specific case. Instead, I’m going to talk about something a little more general, but a subject that has fascinated me since I learned about it almost a decade ago. Forensics facilities around the world study human decomposition as it relates to homicides and even work with police to solve these crimes. Let’s talk about body farms.
First off, what exactly are we talking about here? A body farm is defined as a “research facility where human decomposition is studied in various settings, as a way of objectifying timing and circumstances of death from human remains.” “Body farm” obviously isn’t the technical term for these places. They’ve been called things like anthropological research facilities, human decomposition facilities, forensics facilities or some other variation involving the words “forensic anthropology,” “facility” or “institute.” From everything I’ve read, body farm staffs don’t seem to be too fond of the nickname. But it is the easiest way to convey the idea, so I’ll be using it or simply “farm” from here on out.
Body farms are best known for laying out corpses in various poses and conditions and doing experiments to learn about human decomposition. They also train cadaver dogs and provide training to police officers so they can see what a decomposing body looks like. The most famous body farm in Knoxville, Tennessee also provides FBI and NCIS training.
The work people do at these farms is extremely important. When investigating a murder, it’s important for investigators to know things like a victim’s time of death or how long they’ve been buried wherever they’re found. Knowledge like this can give important information about the circumstances surrounding, before and after the victim’s death. Research at these farms could even help investigators clear murder suspects or find hidden graves.
But who donates their bodies to a body farm? It’s not something that most of us would think about when we face a loved one’s imminent death, or even our own. In fact, when I asked my dad if he would ever consider donating his body one day, he laughed.
There are a few different reasons why people donate their bodies to a body farm. The most common are wanting to make a positive contribution to science, wanting a natural burial, or being unwilling or unable to pay for funeral costs. A lot of people also choose body farms for donation as opposed to other medical facilities because requirements at farms tend to be less stringent.
A lot of bodies are also unclaimed or unidentified. One particular facility in Texas has bodies of people who died while being smuggled across the U.S./Mexico border, I presume illegally. I don’t think these particular bodies are actually used in experiments on the farm — staff simply works with police to help identify them.
The history of body farms stretches all the way back to 1971 when Dr. William Bass arrived at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville in 1971. Dr. Bass served as a forensic anthropologist and wanted to expand the school’s program to include a graduate program (in addition to the undergrad one). He was given land early on for bodies donated to the school, but didn’t get the land for what’s now known as the world’s first body farm until 1980.
That year, Bass was called on by police after they found a Civil War gave that had been disturbed. They’d found a body inside the grave that they thought was more recent but had been put in the older grave to make it harder to find. At first, Bass concluded that the body was newer because it was unusually well preserved. But after further analysis, he realized the body had been buried in an airtight casket, which had helped slow decomposition — and it was actually the body of a Confederate solder. I’m sure Bass and the police were relieved they didn’t have a murder on their hands. But it was this experience that made Bass realize just how little was known about human decomposition. He was able to acquire land from an abandoned farm, and the body farm came about the following year.
The term “body farm” apparently came about pretty early on and was started by cops in Knoxville. But it wasn’t made well known until Patricia Cornwell’s novel The Body Farm,* published in either 1994 or 1995 (different sources said different things). Cornwell reportedly worked with Bass at one point, and I believe one of the characters in the book was loosely based on him. Some sources even say Cornwell coined the term “body farm” on her own. However it came about, it was now a term that was mainstream.
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But Cornwell is not the only one who’s written about body farms. Dr. Bass and writer Jon Jefferson have written three non fiction books and an entire “body farm” series together under the pen name Jefferson Bass. I’ve never read any of their books, but their body farm series looks like pretty typical crime fiction novels. You can check them out here.
For awhile, the Tennessee body farm was the only one of its kind. But there was a need for other facilities as well. Decomposition is often affected by things like region and climate, so other parts of the country — and the world — have opened up their own farms.
The next one to open up was at Western Carolina University in North Carolina in 2006. It was followed by two in Texas: One at Texas State University in 2008 and another at Sam Houston State University in 2009. Another opened up at Southern Illinois University I believe in 2012, and another at Colorado Mesa University that same year. At 4,780 feet, the Colorado facility is at the highest altitude, and that, along with the desert environment of the southwestern United States, affects decomposition. Another “farm” just opened at Northern Michigan University around 2017 — the world’s first cold weather body farm.
In 2016, the first body farm outside the United States opened. The Australian Facility for Taphonomic Experimental Research (or AFTER) is part of the University of Technology Sydney and lies just west of Sydney in New South Wales, Australia. In Australian summers, a body can fully decompose within just a few weeks, so this is another important climate in the, erm, climate diversity?
Another warm weather facility opened the following year in Florida. The Forensic Institute for Research, Security and Tactical Training (or FIRST) isn’t part of a school, but is supported by Pasco-Hernando State College. It’s also the country’s first subtropical body farm.
There are plans for body farms in Wisconsin and the United Kingdom, though the latter has been in talks for several years and has never come about. I read about another planned facility in Pennsylvania, but I don’t think that one ever came to fruition either. I also read about a similar planned location in the Netherlands, though the bodies here would all be buried in shallow graves.
There are also plans for a farm in Canada. This one was started by Shari Forbes, who also started the Australian facility. It was set to open in spring 2020, but that doesn’t seem to have happened, so I’m not sure when it will actually open. The facility is part of — or t least affiliated with — the Université du Québec à Trois-Rivières and is called the Secure Site for Research in Thanatology. Thanatology is the study of death and things associated with it. I assume it comes from Thanatos, the personification of death in Greek mythology.
So let’s get to the fun part: What do they do at these body farms?
Well, it depends on the location. Bodies may be laying out in the open, covered by cages or exposed. They may or may not be clothed. Some float in pools, are laid out in cars, in trees, covered with tarps or put in garbage cans. Some are in the sun, some in the shade. Sometimes things like trash or animal bones are buried with the bodies to see if technology designed to find human remains can tell the difference. Some bodies are wrapped in rugs, burned or struck with objects.
And different facilities carry out their own bizarre experiments. At one point, the Tennessee farm was burying bodies under concrete since a lot of people who kill their spouse will do this to hide the body. They’ve also buried bodies at different depths to see how that would affect decomposition. Experiments at Texas State have included burying bodies under mattresses and seeing if ants can tell the difference between human and animal remains. And at the North Carolina farm, they worked to discover what kinds of plastic bags cause corpses to decompose faster (apparently it’s black plastic bags).
But my personal favorite experiment was conducted at the Illinois facility and studied how lawnmowers affect skeletal remains. It was prompted when a lawnmower accidentally ran over two of their bodies. When life gives you lemons…
But, just like bodies in the wild, the bodies at these farms sometimes have to deal with unexpected animal visitors. The North Carolina facility had possum eating bodies at one point, and a report from January 2020 says feral cats were seen eating corpses in Colorado. This is apparently pretty uncommon, since cats prefer to hunt rather than scavenge, but I assume these cats were just really hungry. And several facilities see vultures picking new bodies clean, sometimes within a few hours.
So that’s all I have for you today on body farms. Several of these facilities do work with the police to help solve crimes — and some have been instrumental in convicting criminals. So, even though a lot of us probably look on them with a gruesome fascination — they are doing a lot of good.
Let me know in the comments — would you ever donate your body to a body farm? I think it would be nice to know you might help solve murders even after you die. Plus the idea of a natural burial seems kind of cool.