What happens when we die? While the metaphysical version of that question may still be up for debate, we now know a lot more about the practical, physical aspects of what happens to our bodies after death, thanks to so-called “body farms” like the one in Knoxville, Tennessee, officially known as the University of Tennessee's Forensic Anthropology Center.
What is the Body Farm?
Simply put, a “body farm” is a research facility where human bodies are left out in the open to decay under natural circumstances. Forensic scientists and anthropologists can then study the process of decay in order to provide better scientific insights into what happens to our bodies when we die, in what order, and under what conditions.
This has obvious benefits in helping police solve homicides. Thanks to body farms like the one in Tennessee, coroners are better able to establish time and even cause of death, but solving crimes isn’t the only way that body farms help the living.
As a result of insights gained from observing human decomposition under a variety of conditions, we can also better date historical finds, which has led to improvements in forensic anthropology and archaeology. Body farms have helped us to identify the victims of genocide, to verify historical sites, and even find bodies of missing persons.
It turns out that, when a body decays, it creates what’s known as a “necrobiome”—a sort of short-term food chain in which the bacteria that feed upon the decaying body are, in turn, fed upon by insects which become food for mice which attract snakes and so on. Decaying bodies also produce certain chemicals in a certain order, and so finding those chemicals can help searchers to locate bodies.
How did the Body Farm get started?
The origin of the Body Farm in Tennessee traces back to one Dr. William Bass. In 1977, Dr. Bass of the University of Tennessee in Knoxville was called in to consult on a peculiar case. It seemed that the grave of a Civil War-era soldier, Col. William Shy, had been disturbed. Police found a headless body, dressed in a fine suit, sitting on top of the colonel’s iron coffin. At the top of the coffin was a hole, and the colonel’s body appeared to be gone.
Dr. Bass wasn’t particularly surprised by this, as the grave was more than a hundred years old, and bodies this old that are buried in the Tennessee soil tend to be reduced to nothing more than a “layer of goo.” The extra body that was found on top of the coffin, on the other hand, was decayed, certainly, but some of the flesh was still pink. Dr. Bass concluded that the body had been dead for no more than a year.
The initial assumption was that someone had attempted to hide a fresh body in the grave of the Civil War hero. There was only one problem—further tests indicated that this “fresh” body was, in fact, that of Col. William Shy, a man who had been dead for more than a century. So, what was the explanation?
Because of his wealth and status, Col. Shy had been embalmed upon his death, that was step one. Step two was the iron coffin, which had effectively sealed the body in and the elements out, preventing the worst of a century of decay. It wasn’t until grave robbers disturbed the corpse that much of the damage was done.
There was one mystery solved, but it made Dr. Bass realize that our methods of dating the decomposition of bodies was desperately in need of an update. That’s what prompted him to start the University of Tennessee Anthropological Research Facility in 1981, though he had actually initiated a Body Farm project there years before, in 1972. Dr. Bass has penned multiple books about the Body Farm and his career in forensics, including Death's Acre and Beyond the Body Farm.
In the decades since, the facility has helped to train members of NCIS and the FBI’s Evidence Recovery Team, to name just a few. Since the start of the Tennessee Body Farm, others have cropped up. Seven such facilities exist in the United States, stretching from Colorado Mesa University to the University of South Florida. The largest such facility in the United States is the 26-acre Body Farm at Texas State University’s Freeman Ranch. By comparison, the Tennessee Body Farm is 2.5 acres surrounded by a razor-wire fence.
What happens at the Body Farm?
Prior to the advent of the Body Farm, most forensic research was conducted on pig carcasses. Pigs are physiologically more similar to humans than many other readily-available animals, but the intricacies of decomposition vary considerably from a human to a pig, and there were many things that researchers were unable to learn with access to actual human cadavers.
At the Body Farm, human corpses are left out in the elements under various conditions so that decomposition can be monitored and studied. The process varies slightly depending on where the Body Farm is located and what, exactly, researchers are trying to learn, but the gist is almost always the same: A body is brought in, hair and other samples are collected, and then the body is placed somewhere on the farm.
Sometimes, bodies are left out in the elements, while other times they are put in places where homicide investigators are likely to find them—places like water tanks or the trunks of cars. Some bodies are protected from scavengers using wire cages while others are left to the mercy of nature, so that forensic scientists can see the results under all sorts of conditions.
At any given time, the Body Farm in Tennessee may have around fifty bodies in various states of decomposition, left in various places—always at least a few feet from any of the other bodies. Over the years, Tennessee alone has housed more than 1,800 bodies—not to mention an additional 1,700 skeletons.
What happens to the body once it’s on the Farm depends a little on where and under what conditions it has been placed, but the process of decomposition always follows certain patterns. Study at the various Body Farms around the country has allowed forensic scientists to learn a lot more about how and under what conditions this process of decomposition takes place.
How does the Body Farm get bodies?
One haunting question that comes up whenever we think of the Body Farm is: Where do all those bodies come from? The answer is not so creepy, though. They’re simply donated.
Just as people are organ donors on their death, some people—more than 4,000 according to the University of Tennessee—have donated their bodies for forensic study at the Body Farm. Today, most people—roughly 70%—die in hospitals, nursing homes, or care facilities. Those who have donated their bodies for study can be collected quickly by the Body Farm and put to use aiding science after their death.
“The Body Donation Program is the heart and soul of the Forensic Anthropology Center,” as the website for the University of Tennessee points out. “The donation program enables individuals to contribute to science in a direct and meaningful way.”
Can I donate my body to the Body Farm?
If you’d like more information on how to donate your body to the Tennessee Body Farm once you’re no longer using it, there is contact information and a donation policy helpfully provided on their website. Who knows? Your body might be the one that helps some investigators solve a murder somewhere down the road.
Watch this video of FBI Evidence Response Team (ERT) members training at the Tennessee Body Farm: