Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Body Farm

Death's Acre:
the Film

Veteran journalist Jon Jefferson, who lives in Tennessee, wrote and produced a two-part documentary about "death's acre" for the National Geographic Society entitled, "Biography of a Corpse," and "Anatomy of a Corpse." In Part One, he shows what happens to a single body from the moment it arrives at the facility to the final boxing of the bones. Then in "Anatomy of a Corpse," he features several professionals who have studied with Bass or have used the Body Farm's facilities for carrying on their own area of expertise. Steve Symes, for example, was an anthropologist on staff for the Memphis, Tennessee Medical Examiner's Office at the time of the filming, who received his training under Bass's direction. A top bone trauma specialist, he can tell from a "signature" left on bone what kind of sharp-bladed implement might have been used, from knives to tree saw to chainsaws.

Jefferson, a documentary film-maker for such networks as A&E, the History Channel, and the National Geographic Channel, had previously worked as a staff science writer at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, one of the most advanced centers in the world for research and development. He has won numerous awards for his work and he lives in Knoxville only a few miles from Bass.

His initial introduction to Bass came from his wife, who had studied at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville.

"I was sitting on the sofa in the living room one Saturday morning, and there was an article about an FBI training in Knoxville. There were all these FBI agents out digging up corpses from a simulated mass grave, and the article provided some background on the place where they were doing this. I thought it was amazing and I was reading her parts of the article. I said, 'Can you believe there's a facility in Knoxville where they do this kind of research?'

She said, "Oh, yeah, that's Dr. Bass and the Body Farm. He was one of my professors in college." She'd had him for an introductory class and a course in osteology.

"I urged her to tell me more, and she did."

At the time, Jefferson was making documentaries for A&E and the History Channel. "I had been doing things about historic luxury hotels, the playgrounds of the rich and famous, and great structures like the Empire State and Chrysler Buildings, which was great, but I was ready to do something different."

He had been a science writer and he missed that. "I wanted to do science documentaries, and I began to think about some interesting ideas that I could pitch. I realized that I had one of the most interesting science projects in the world right in my backyard."

He's aware that it takes a certain type of writer to be able to switch from luxury hotels to a yard full of decomposing bodies.

"You have to be interested in science," he said. "You have to be able to get past the gruesome stuff. But the thing about Dr. Bass that's so great is that he's able to take this macabre subject and get you so fascinated so fast that you forget who and what it is you're looking at. You get caught up in his view that this is a scientific puzzle, an effort to uncover the truth. Ultimately, it's a quest for justice. Those things are so much more powerful than the feeling that this is horrifying to look at."

Originally, the plan was to shoot a one-hour documentary, and that quickly became an idea for two. "I thought we'd do one that follows a corpse all the way through and then one devoted to the cutting-edge technology."

Jefferson directed them, and when he could not get a cameraman one day, he even shot one scene of a house on fire. He also shot a time-lapse sequence that shows the decomposition of a corpse from start to finish. "That was with a still camera, rigged on a tripod with a timer. The camera was out there for the entire eight weeks that we were shooting. At first we had an exposure taken every two hours. Then as the changes began slowing down after a couple of weeks, I cranked it back to every four hours and then every six hours, and ultimately, every eight hours. We were into fall by that time and the temperatures were dropping, so everything was slowing down."

He had hundreds of frames that he put together into a video sequence. "When we raced through the frames in 10 or 15 seconds, it was amazing to watch that. By the end of the eight weeks, the corpse had changed so much that I had forgotten how active it had been at the beginning—particularly the insect activity. So when we started editing and went back and looked at the early footage, I was amazed at the frenzy of activity."

Jefferson liked the concept of the first documentary best. "They both turned out well, but I liked the idea of following a person all the way through. I hadn't seen anything like that done before. You can see the whole sequence of events with one corpse. You get a sense of that person, both after death and who he was in his life. You see that how he lived had an impact on, and was recorded in, his skeleton. He had been a lifelong athlete and he'd lived into his seventies and that made for a robust skeletal structure. At one point, we had a forensic sculptor do a clay reconstruction of his face. All she knew was that he was male, in his 70s, and of Greek ancestry, yet from his skull she was able to do a remarkable likeness of his features. She was struck immediately by how pronounced the muscle attachment points at the base of the skull were. She realized he must have been very active and fit. It was interesting to see those things register on someone who had never seen him or his picture."

Did he ever personalize it?

"I did think about the bodies," Jefferson admits. "A lot of people ask if I'm going to donate my own body to the Body Farm. I don't know yet. When I'm asked, I think about what would happen to my body. I liked the interview with Dr. Lee Jantz in the documentary, where she talks about being a donor herself and how it's not comfortable to think about what's going to happen, but it's important enough to her to do it, anyway. It was a gift to us, and by extension to millions of people, for the woman who arranged for the body for us that we followed all the way through — for her to arrange it, knowing that this is where he was going to go and having some idea of what was going to happen and that an enormous number of people would be watching. We thought that was a generous gift."

Another generous gift was the cooperation of the Body Farm staff. When Jefferson contacted Bass, the scientists had done a lot of documentary shooting and were considering imposing a moratorium on any more productions, at least for a while, because it's quite time-consuming to work with camera crews. Yet Bass wanted to hear more about Jefferson's ideas. "He liked that I wanted to emphasize the science and so he arranged a lunch meeting with the other forensic anthropology faculty. I described how I wanted to approach it and they said they would do it."

Another issue that Jefferson faced was just how much of the graphic material National Geographic would allow them to use. "They were so great about letting us shoot things that I can't imagine any other network airing. They put a lot of trust in us. We asked how graphic we could get, and they said if you're making a valid point about the science, show whatever you need to show. Don't show anything gratuitously, but make it scientific. They were brave to air it."

Once the documentaries were in motion, Bill Bass invited Jon Jefferson to turn some of the material he had collected over the years into a book. Jefferson was eager to be involved, and it was published in 2003. In the acknowledgments, Jefferson writes, "As Goethe once said, 'the instant you burn your bridges and fling yourself at something, magic happens.' Providence moves, doors open, coincidences add up to destiny." That has been his experience ever since meeting Bill Bass.

For those who can't watch the images but still want to know, the book shows readers how it all began and just how the Body Farm functions.

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