What Remains: What happens at a body farm?

29 June 2022

Putting together a podcast is a lot more organic than you might think. You have an idea, and then that idea percolates in your brain giving birth to more ideas or new paths you might explore. This is exactly what happened as I researched What Remains. My producer, Anita, and I were interviewing two forensic artists (you will meet them in episode 7), and they showed us photos of what a body farm looked like on their laptop. We were fascinated to learn that much of what scientists know about decomposition comes from facilities like these.

What happens at a body farm (or human decomposition facility)? Human bodies are left outside to decompose in nature. As the soft tissue disappears, scientists keep a record of the time it takes, what happens at each stage, and environmental factors that impact the process – weather, scavengers, even the slope on which the body is lying. All the human remains at a body farm come from people who chose to donate their body to science, in particular to the science of decomposition.

The impact of body farm research

Initially, not everyone was on board with this type of research. Many people saw it as blasphemous and offensive. However, the knowledge that comes from this research can have a major impact on murder cases. Knowing how long it takes a body to decompose in certain conditions is important to forensic science. When skeletal remains are found in the woods, for example, law enforcement officers with a basic knowledge of this science can estimate how long the remains have been there. That becomes the first step in identifying someone and solving their murder.

Part of the mystique that surrounds these facilities is how they have been portrayed in popular culture – in books, movies and television shows.

Fascination with modern body farms

Scientists prefer the term “human decomposition facility,” but the more colloquial term “body farm” was coined by a bestselling author in the nineties and it stuck. Novelist Patricia Cornwell published a murder mystery called The Body Farm in 1994 about the homicide of an 11-year-old girl in rural North Carolina. The main character in the story, Kay Scarpetta, visits a body farm in Tennessee to help her glean scientific information that ultimately solves the case. While it was fiction, the book was inspired by the first human decomposition facility in the country, The University of Tennessee Forensic Anthropology Center started by Dr. William Bass in 1971. Another character in the novel, forensic scientist Dr. Thomas Katz, is based on Bass.

Bass and author Jon Jefferson also published their own murder mystery novels based around fictional happenings at the body farm. They write under the pseudonym Jefferson Bass. The lead character in their books is also based on Dr. Bass.

Plenty of television shows from Bones to CSI to Law and Order to The X-Files have featured segments about body farms. Many of the stories are based on the facility at the University of Tennessee.

Decomposition research grows

Today, there are seven body farms in the United States. The facility at Western Carolina University officially opened in 2007, and was only the second one in the country. The other body farms are located at universities in Texas, Illinois, Colorado, Michigan and Florida. The largest facility is located at Texas State University and spans 26 acres. There are also body farms in Canada, Britain, India and Australia.

While novels, television shows and movies have made these places seem dark and macabre, the settings are actually quite beautiful. The North Carolina facility is also known as “The Forest” (short for Forensic Osteology Research Station) and is nestled in the small mountain town of Cullowhee. When a person chooses to donate their body to science, many say they see the process as returning to nature, returning to the earth, the cycle of life the way it’s meant to be. And the people who work at these facilities have respect for the bodies that are donated to them. They see them as gifts, gifts to the scientific world, gifts that create a legacy of important knowledge for future generations.


What Remains episode 3 is available now in all podcasts apps. Find episode transcripts at www.whatremainspodcast.com.

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