Life or Death Research?
What Happens After Death Human decomposition facilities offer insight into the post-mortem process that can help a wide variety of people – both the dead and the living
Human decomposition facilities are popularly known as “body farms” – a nickname that often creates misunderstandings or minimizes the role these institutions play in looking after the living and providing assistance and justice to the families of the dead. In fact, these facilities provide a vital view of what happens to bodies after death in different environments and under different conditions. Such information is valuable not only for forensic investigations, but also following a natural or man-made catastrophe or for pure research purposes. The Australian Facility for Taphonomic Experimental Research (AFTER) is the only human decomposition center located outside the United States and, as such, it’s an important resource for academics, law enforcement officials, and forensic pathologists working in the unique climate and geographical conditions of southeastern Australia and similar regions.
Before and AFTER
While living in Canada for seven years, I visited several taphonomic research centers in the USA and quickly saw the importance of having such a facility focused on Australia’s unique environment. The way that soft tissue decomposes at US facilities is very different to what we experience in Sydney with climate, ecosystem and geology all playing a role. Thankfully, many of my collaborators in Australia also understood the need to have a facility to ensure that our research is reflective of our local climate, and that the information we give police and forensic services is as accurate as it can be. As soon as I returned to Australia in 2012, I started discussing the idea with my colleagues – only to discover that they had already been thinking about it for several years. From there, it was a natural progression.
Going from a proposal to a fully equipped facility was quite a lengthy procedure – three and a half years, to be exact. The first step was to determine whether or not our idea was legally viable. We contacted New South Wales (NSW) Health, who license anatomical teaching facilities in our state, and they were very helpful in explaining that there were no legal restrictions, so we could indeed conduct such research. We then contacted the local council where our site was to be based; they were very supportive of the idea and worked with us to ensure that we addressed all of the cultural and environmental requirements to approve the land for this type of research. Following that approval, we applied – once again successfully – to the Australian Research Council for funding. After its construction, the facility was licensed by NSW Health to have human cadavers and human remains on site. Once all of that was complete, in January of 2016, AFTER officially opened its doors.
I consider myself lucky to have ended up as Director at AFTER. I was selected in part because I had led the project from its beginnings, but my expertise in forensic taphonomy also helped; I was already conducting decomposition research using animal remains, so it was a natural transition to study human remains when the opportunity presented itself. Finally, the University of Technology Sydney (UTS), my home institution, owned the land and had a body donation program, which made it the natural lead organization – so it was clear that the facility’s director should be based there.
I am a graduate of the UTS forensic science program (from many years ago and before CSI came on the air!), so I have always had an interest in forensic research. My honors research focused on decomposition in buried environments (specifically cemeteries), as did my doctoral work, which had a focus on forensic burials. I originally chose forensic science because I loved science in general but also wanted to do something that had a clear impact on society; for me, forensic science seemed the obvious choice.
The opportunity to study human remains has allowed us to have more confidence in our findings, and particularly in the information we give to the police. Indeed, the benefits of having a dedicated human taphonomic research facility were highlighted recently when we identified that pig remains – the closest proxy in decomposition studies – do not accurately mimic human decomposition in our local environment. That said, there are still many reasons to use pig remains; we continue to conduct animal decomposition studies, particularly to identify vertebrate scavengers – something we cannot do with human remains due to our licensing requirements. (As an anatomical teaching and research facility, all of our donors must be secure and accounted for at all times. If we allowed scavenging, there is a high risk that scavengers would remove bones from the site.)
Perhaps our greatest challenge is that we cannot replicate the data gathered during the decomposition of an individual cadaver, because no two bodies decompose in exactly the same way, even in the same environment. This reality is not unique to human decomposition; it’s also true for animal remains, although some researchers argue that they may be more replicable. We find that, just as mammals are unique during life, they are equally unique after death – so we are only able to identify trends across our studies.
Location, location, location
AFTER is based in a natural eucalyptus woodland that mimics the kind of remote forest on the outskirts of Sydney where police might search for the remains of victims. It is surrounded by a high-security fence with CCTV cameras and a small building at the entrance. The location belonged to UTS before AFTER’s establishment and was provided to me to conduct animal decomposition studies when I returned to Australia in 2012. When we decided to set up a human decomposition facility, we quickly realized that it was an ideal location: remote, but still accessible for research, and with the type of terrain that was most likely to be helpful to police and search and rescue teams.
Our day-to-day routine is dependent on the kinds of projects that are being conducted and how frequently researchers need to collect data. For research on cadaver detection by dogs, we start our studies by collecting decomposition odors and identifying key chemical compounds as soon as a donor arrives. We then visit AFTER on a daily basis until the decomposition process slows and sampling can occur less frequently. We have 14 partner organizations and more than 80 researchers conducting their own projects, so it can get quite busy! We also run training days for our police partners and give tours to relevant visitors, such as visiting forensic pathologists or police from other states or countries. Training may simply involve giving a tour to a particular group (for instance, the Homicide Investigators Unit) to raise awareness about how we can assist them, or it may involve a physical activity (such as testing police Disaster Victim Recovery protocols in the case of a collapsed building, or training crime scene officers in victim recovery from clandestine graves). No two days at our facility are quite the same.
In terms of ethical guidelines, we are governed by NSW Health legislation, specifically under the Anatomy Act and the Human Tissues Act. The organization audits us regularly to ensure that we are following all processes correctly. All of our research projects must undergo an ethics review, but also require approval by UTS and the relevant partner organization(s). And, of course, all donors must consent to donation to AFTER.
We have received no negative feedback from the general public so far, which I consider very fortunate! We do spend a lot of time engaging with the public through media and presentations to raise awareness about our facility and the importance of the research and training we do, so that’s obviously paying off. They also know whom to contact if they have any concerns or want further information. Typically, though, I am only contacted following a presentation or interview by potential donors who want information about signing up to AFTER. We find that people can relate to our research much better when we explain to them who our research is helping – for example, missing persons, victims of homicide, or victims of mass disaster.
A new attitude toward death
I do believe that people have a better acceptance of death once they have worked with human remains. They seem to find it easier to talk about death, particularly with family and friends. Certainly, I’ve found that to be the case with my own family. I am commonly told by partners and the police that their visits to AFTER were not as confronting as they had feared. Our location is actually a very peaceful environment, which helps to reassure both those who work here and those considering a donation.
One of our main priorities at AFTER is to strive for the most valuable data from every donation, which means collaborating extensively across disciplines in forensic taphonomy. We have some difficulty getting funding for our research because granting agencies often think that the police should fund this type of research. Unfortunately, law enforcement agencies have very limited budgets for research, so we try to think outside the box in terms of where we apply for funding. Not everything we do is focused on crime and forensic science. Some of our researchers use AFTER to conduct archeological research, cemetery research, human rights investigations, and so on – and, as a result, we can creatively seek funding from other national and international sources.
AFTER is entirely supplied by body donors, who must give consent during life. There is one exception; a potential donor’s senior next of kin can give consent at the time of death if they can demonstrate that the deceased did, in fact, want to donate their remains to science and specifically to AFTER. One such example would be someone who wrote their desire into their will, but did not complete a specific consent form. As a result, the majority of our donors are elderly and have died of natural causes, which skews our data to a degree, but does not make it any less valuable. We are starting to receive younger donors at AFTER as people become increasingly aware of our facility and the importance of our research to police and forensic services. I think the culture around death is starting to change, too, which may be why we are having younger donors consent during life.
The misunderstandings I hear most when I tell people what I do for a living are that we “farm” bodies at AFTER – or that we simply watch them decompose. There is a persistent belief among some people that our facilities must be threatening, graphic and grotesque, or that what we do is disrespectful to the remains. The prejudices sometimes extend to me – for instance, people may assume I should look like Abby from NCIS or Morticia from the Addams Family!
If I could tell pathologists one thing about human decomposition research, it’s that we need more forensic pathologists conducting research in forensic taphonomy. Although our work can assist them, the few who currently work in the field are busy individuals with little time for research, so it is one of the disciplines we currently lack at AFTER. When I give tours to pathologists, they always share great ideas for research, particularly because they have their own experiences to draw on. I’d love to see more of that in the near future – for the benefit of the dead and the living.
Shari Forbes is Director of the Australian Facility for Taphonomic Experimental Research, Professor in the School of Mathematical and Physical Sciences, and a Core Member of the Center for Forensic Science at the University of Technology Sydney, Australia.