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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.

Table 1. All human decomposition facilities in the world with institutional affiliation, location, and year established.

Delving into death processes

Taphonomic research facilities exist to study the process of human decomposition and the many factors associated with it: temperature, precipitation, soil chemistry, animal scavengers, insect activity, and more. Prior to the establishment of these facilities, animals such as pigs and rabbits were used as proxies for humans – but only recently, thanks to human decomposition facilities, have researchers demonstrated that non-human models like pigs do not follow the same decomposition patterns as humans (1). The primary activity that takes place at human decomposition facilities is the detailed analysis of decomposition under varying conditions, usually using some form of scoring system along with documentation by notes and photographs.

Multiple facilities exist in different physiographic zones because each zone has specific temperature ranges, precipitation amounts, flora, and fauna that affect decomposition. For example, an individual placed outside during the summer months in Marquette, Michigan, will decompose at a different rate than one placed outside at the exact same time in San Marcos, Texas. The rural, mountainous surroundings of the facility in Cullowhee will encourage different modifiers to the semi-urban environment of the facility in Knoxville, despite being just over an hour’s drive away. Smaller variables such as plants and animals compound these differences. For instance, vulture behavior in the wide open spaces of the Texas facilities is different to their activity in the wooded environment of the Appalachian Mountains. These details are necessary when trying to understand the post-depositional context of an individual found in the woods, a field, or a parking lot.

Formal research is conducted at these facilities with the aim of generating peer-reviewed literature that can strengthen the rigor of forensic reports and associated courtroom testimony. The ability to estimate the post-mortem interval or identify evidence of scavenger activity in a systematic, reliable way is important for assisting medico-legal professionals in resolving questioned deaths and identifying unknown individuals. Without the availability of scientific evidence to support professional opinions, subject matter experts can only debate post-mortem interval (time elapsed since death) estimates, leaving juries in an awkward position.

Researchers at these facilities also recreate cases encountered by law enforcement officials when necessary. For example, how does a body decompose when locked in a car trunk? When it has been burned using an accelerant? When it has been disarticulated? These unusual circumstances provide anomalous decomposition scenarios that can be difficult to interpret using traditional models. Human decomposition facilities can assist in understanding the post-deposition environment by recreating these events and studying how a body reacts in controlled environments.

Teaching and training

Human decomposition facilities provide opportunities for research, networking, and hands-on experience that not only help students determine what specific careers they may want to pursue, but also provide knowledge beneficial to various professionals. Because multiple bodies can be observed in various states of decomposition, individuals can view several stages of decomposition at once and learn to recognize the difference between them, as well as methods for estimating the post-mortem interval. Students can also learn skills related to the identification of human versus non-human bone, scavenging behavior of animals, and best-practice search and recovery techniques to preserve the integrity of the scene. Throughout all of this research, these facilities also serve the medico-legal and law enforcement communities by providing continuing education and training to students and professionals in the search, recovery, collection and interpretation of human remains from various depositional contexts and stages of decomposition.

Research opportunities at these facilities are cross-disciplinary, collaborative, and constantly changing as new methods and technologies are developed. For example, active research at WCU’s Forensic Osteology Research Station (FOREST) facility ranges from examining degradation rates of nuclear DNA in soft tissues and bone to estimating the post-mortem interval by examining the oral microbiome. Projects examining human decomposition fluid and soil chemistry, or the science of human remains detection dog scenting, bring together scientists from across the academic spectrum to understand not only the human decomposition process itself, but also its significant ecological effects.

Human decomposition facilities are valuable scientific resources. Despite this, seemingly few people know these facilities exist – and even those who do have misconceptions about what the facilities are used for and how they operate. One of the most common misconceptions is related to the origins of the bodies used in this type of research. Theories about “red market” acquisition of bodies, spaces for secret government disposal areas, and the collection of unknown and unclaimed individuals can be found scattered across the Internet. Of course, none of these are true. There are federal and state laws that dictate how and where human remains and tissue can be stored or deposited. Additionally, local institutional oversight and professional ethics influence the acceptance and study of human remains. In reality, these facilities operate similarly to any other scientific tissue donation system. All human decomposition facilities have paperwork that identifies the transfer of remains from one next-of-kin or legal owner to another. Furthermore, all facilities have individuals who “pre-donate” their remains for study. Pre-donors are living individuals who decide that they want their body to be studied at one of these facilities and complete the appropriate paperwork to allow the facility to take possession of their remains after death.

For science – and society

Finally, human decomposition facilities serve a social purpose as well – they act as a depositional alternative for individuals who cannot afford burial or cremation. Donation is free, and some facilities have funding to pick up donor’s bodies within a specified driving radius. Another social impact is that this type of deposition is “green.” Many people are interested having as minimal an environmental impact as possible after their deaths. They like the idea of giving back to nature – and, at least in the case of FOREST, resting peacefully in the sun-stippled landscape of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Perspectives have changed a lot since 1981. The acceptance of human decomposition facilities and donation to them has had significant impacts on the medico-legal community and the development of the forensic sciences. They have helped bring closure to families and reliability to courtroom testimony. They are unique and valuable resources that will continue to contribute in multifaceted ways by providing a place for scientific endeavor while simultaneously addressing a variety of societal needs and interests.

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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  1. M Connor et al., “Testing the use of pigs as human proxies in decomposition studies”, J Forensic Sci, [Epub ahead of print] (2017). PMID: 29284073.
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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