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Outside the Lab Forensics, Microbiology and immunology, Training and education, Profession

A Force for Good

In 1981, the proposal of a facility to study human decomposition was necessary – but, to many people, socially macabre and ideologically offensive. Over time, though, perspectives regarding this kind of scientific research have changed. Exposure to popular crime dramas, shock-value news reports, and general Internet content has affected how people view death and the dead. Additionally, social movements like those focusing on “green” burial practices are encouraging individuals to donate their bodies to human decomposition facilities, where they can both decompose naturally and contribute to forensic science.

The first human decomposition facility, colloquially known as a “body farm,” was established by William Bass in 1981 at the University of Tennessee (UT), Knoxville, to scientifically address questions surrounding the rate and process of human decomposition. The second such facility did not arise until 2005, this time at Western Carolina University (WCU) in Cullowhee, North Carolina.Since then, six more human decomposition facilities have been built in the United States, as well as one in Australia (see Table 1).  The term “body farm” comes from Patricia Cornwell’s eponymous 1994 novel, which was inspired by the UT facility. Although the term “body farm” is widely used, “human decomposition facility” is the preferred way to reference this resource.

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About the Author

Katie Zejdlik, Nicholas V. Passalacqua, and John A. Williams

Katie Zejdlik is Assistant Professor and Forensic Anthropology Collections and Director at the Forensic Osteology Research Station, Western Carolina University.
Nicholas V. Passalacqua is Assistant Professor and Forensic Anthropology Program Coordinator at Western Carolina University.
John A. Williams is Full Professor at Western Carolina University, Cullowhee, USA.

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