Down on the Body Farm: Inside the Dirty World of Forensic Science


Sometime soon, dead bodies will be scattered around John O'Laughlin's land. Wanting to give students and researchers at California University of Pennsylvania's Institute of Criminological and Forensic Sciences a place to analyze human remains, O'Laughlin recently donated a sizable chunk of his 222-acre piece of property in southwestern Pennsylvania to be used as a "body farm." His won't be the first.

The term "body farm" comes from Patricia Cornwall's 1995 crime fiction novel to describe an anthropological research facility (ARF) dedicated to the study of the decomposition of bodies. These facilities continue to provide a unique opportunity for controlled research and the development of new technologies in forensic anthropology and its related disciplines.

A firm date has not yet been set, but the new facility will open sometime in 2011, according to Dr. John R. Cencich, Director of the Institute of Criminological and Forensic Sciences. Before then, the administrators need to iron out a few details with local government officials and verify that the new facility complies with all local ordinances.

Once the new body farm is up and running, it will be the fifth in the country and the first of its kind in the Northeast. The four other body farms in the United States are located in the Southeast and Southwest: one in Tennessee (University of Tennessee at Knoxville), one in North Carolina (Western Carolina University in Cullowhee) and two in Texas (Texas State University in San Marcos and Sam Houston State University in Huntsville). The dimensions of these body farms range from the 59-foot square at Western Carolina University -- built to hold between six and 10 bodies at a time -- to the five-acre facility at Texas State University.

According to many forensic experts and researchers, the establishment of a fifth body farm is invaluable to the continued study of human decomposition. "The nice thing about [the new Pennsylvania facility] is it's in a completely different geographic region," said Dr. Gerald Laporte, a Forensic Policy Program Manager and Physical Scientist at the National Institute of Justice at the Department of Justice. "This has a tremendous research benefit, because there's not a lot of research that looks at how bodies decompose under climatic conditions up in the Northeast."

The effect that precipitation, temperature and humidity have on a decomposing body are important factors for researchers at body farms to consider -- factors that are limited by the region in which research can be conducted. "It's so environment specific," said Dr. Richard L. Jantz, Professor Emeritus and Director of the Forensic Anthropology Center at the University of Tennessee. "In east Tennessee, it's not humid in the summer and it doesn't get that cold, but in the southwest, it's hot and dry all the time and things proceed differently."

Cold weather generally slows the rate of decomposition, while heat, direct sunlight, and high humidity all accelerate it. A buried body, exposed to fewer elements, will decompose more slowly than one on the surface, but acidic soil and high soil moisture can work to speed up the process. The California University of Pennsylvania body farm, to be located in the southwestern corner of the state in a humid continental climate, will be subject to hot, humid summers (with an occasional heatwave); cold, snowy winters; and regular precipitation throughout the year. These climatic conditions, distinct from those in Texas, North Carolina and Tennessee, will likely affect corpses in undocumented ways and provide ample opportunity for new research.

The cadavers on most body farms come from two sources: medical examiners -- "If nobody claims a body, you have to do something with it," Jantz said -- and pre-donors. The latter is the preferred method: the Anthropological Research Facility in Knoxville currently has over 2,000 pre-donors on file who will bestow their corporeal remains to the facility after they die. "We get over 100 donated bodies each year from donations," Jantz said. "People donate themselves like they would to a medical school." It should be noted, though, that getting into medical school doesn't get much easier when you're dead. "If you donate your body to a medical school, it's used in anatomy training," Jantz said. "But they're very particular, you know. If you're obese, they won't take you, if you're too big they won't take you, if you've been autopsied they won't take you. But none of that matters to us."

As a body donor, there are some practical issues to consider. For one, how do you make good on your donation delivery? "It depends on where you die," Jantz said. "If you're local -- in Knoxville or the surrounding area -- and if the family chooses to honor your wish to donate, then the medical institution where you die will call us, and we'll go get the body and bring it to the facility." This door-to-door service can be used for in-state cadavers up to 100 miles away. If a pre-donor dies farther away than that, it becomes the responsibility of the family to ship the body to the facility. "If it's a long way, like the west coast, they're usually flown in, or they can also be brought to us by a carrier," Jantz explained.

At the body farm in Knoxville, bodies are used both for training criminal investigators and performing original research. "In training for law enforcement, [the bodies] are buried," Jantz said. "Then the law enforcement people excavate them as if they were clandestine graves. And during the process they learn a little bit about bones and how to recognize human bones, and how to recognize the orientation of the body in the grave -- how to excavate it, how to collect the evidence." The body farm at the University of Tennessee offers "roughly half a dozen courses per year," Jantz said; most last one week, and several focus on topics for specific organizations, like the course offered for the FBI's Emergency Response Team, or the two offered for the National Forensic Academy on forensic evidence gathering.

The forensic anthropologists who perform research at body farms are interested in forensic taphonomy, or the study of what physically happens to a body between death and the time it is recovered. Entomologists come to these facilities to observe the way that different insects feed or use the body in different stages of their life cycle. Based on the maturity of a certain species, entomologists can estimate how long a person has been dead. Other researchers study the biochemical processes that happen to a body after death, many of which are related to the volatile fatty acids expelled or produced by a dead body. This type of research assists in estimating the time of death when it occurred weeks, or even years, before discovery.

Animal activity is another effective indicator of time since death, especially when decomposition has reached more advanced stages. This area of research is fairly new in forensic anthropology, but Jantz explained that a great deal has already been learned with body farm research:

If a body decomposes and you're left with bone, the bone initially is still greasy and wet because of the fat that's in it. But after it lies on the surface -- or even if its buried for a certain period of time -- bacterial action takes care of the grease, and the bone becomes dry. Animals come at different times during that stage. So rats, for example, come when the bone is still greasy. Rat signatures are fairly easy to recognize because they chew the ends of the bone to get the marrow. Then after the bone is dry, squirrels come along and gnaw on the bone. So if a bone has squirrel gnawing, it's been there at least a year. So squirrels are a time since death indicator, and squirrels tend to gnaw on the bones in the spring, apparently for the calcium for their new litter, and you can even see annual cycles of squirrel gnawing.

With the aim of expanding the body of research in these and other fields, the National Institute of Justice (NIJ), the chief research, development and evaluation agency under the Department of Justice, has funded several forensic research projects in the past three years that rely on body farms. "Is more research needed? Yes, it is," said Danielle McLeod-Henning, Program Manager at the Office of Investigative and Forensic Sciences at NIJ. "The more research that is done, especially geographically, the more we can hone in and have the supporting data to assist in actual casework."

Image: Roma Khan doing preliminary work on decomposition of cattle, Wikimedia Commons.