Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Body Farm

Where the Dead Serve the Living

Forensic Anthropology Center at UT-K logo
Forensic Anthropology Center
at UT-K logo

As part of the Forensic Anthropology Center at UT-K, this protected, two-and-a-half-acre field dedicated to the study of decomposing human remains is truly unique.

"Before our work, no one had ever established a time line," Bass said. "There are a lot of factors that can affect how a body decomposes, but we found that the major two are climate and insects. When a person dies, the body begins to decay immediately and the enzymes in the digestive system begin to eat the tissue. You putrefy, and this gives off a smell. Up until about two and a half weeks, one of the best ways to tell how long a body is dead is to look at the insect activity. The first of the critters to be attracted to a decaying body are the blowflies. They come along and lay their eggs, which hatch into maggots. The maggots then eat the decaying tissue in a fairly predictable way." Measuring and recording this information, along with climatic variables such as temperature and humidity, gave the facility its raison d'être.

Since those early days, the place has evolved. Scientists still use a few unclaimed bodies, but mostly accept those that have been donated to science. There's even a waiting list for people who want to designate the Body Farm as their final destination.

Dr. Murray K. Marks
Dr. Murray K. Marks

Dr. Murray K. Marks, an associate professor, is the facility's current curator and a specialist in facial reconstruction. He oversees each new project, many of which are run by graduate students. "Initially there were three to five donations a year," he says, "and now we get about 40. At any time, we generally receive about 25 bodies in the process and they stay there for about a year." As each stage of decomposition is recorded and analyzed, it's added to the growing data bank that is made available to law enforcement.

Sometimes the research involves an attempt to duplicate the conditions of a particular crime, such as the one done for Patricia Cornwell, but more often experiments are designed for general data collection that could assist in future, as-yet-unknown cases. The more precisely the researchers can measure decomposition in known conditions, the more they can contribute to solving and prosecuting a crime.

Corpses that arrive at the facility have been placed in all kinds of positions and conditions: locked in a car trunk, lying in direct sunlight, hidden under canvas and plastic, buried in mud, hung from a scaffold, closed into coffins, refrigerated in the dark, zipped into body bags, and submerged in water, to name a few. One body may come in headless, another with wounds. Some are even embalmed, and a few are dismembered. Stages of insect infestation on corpses are examined, along with general exposure to the environment and disturbances by small rodents.

When there's an ongoing project, the person assigned to it—often a graduate student in anthropology—makes a precise digital record at regular intervals of various aspects of the disintegration process. He or she may also use an electronic nose with numerous sensors to record changes in the odors. These are fed into a gas chromatograph, which separates and analyzes the distinct parts of compound mixtures. One hope is to develop sprays that can be used to train cadaver dogs. Marks and his colleagues at Oak Ridge National Laboratory are also isolating specific biochemical markers that will provide precise measurements of the postmortem interval during the first two weeks after death.

The researchers analyze soil samples as well as bodies and body parts, because byproducts of decomposition generally seep into the ground. That means a scientist can determine how long a body was lying in a particular spot, or whether it was placed somewhere and then moved—and when that occurred. They have more such experiments planned for the future.

"There are so many projects still to be done," Dr. Bass said. He has invited other universities to set up similar facilities, but there have been no takers. Considering the need for data from other types of soils and climates, he hopes that situation will change. Until it does, the facility at the University of Knoxville at Tennessee will remain the leader in death investigation.

Let's look at some of those developments.