Back to Forensic Basics with the Body Farm

Today’s post is not for the squeamish or faint of heart.  It's a perfect post for those who are writing crime fiction, thrillers, or mysteries. 

The body farm refers to a research facility where human decomposition is studied in different settings, conditions, and environments.  The invaluable research gains a more accurate understanding of the human decomposition process. 

As ghoulish as it sounds, learning to properly develop techniques to extract information from decomposition remains, such as the time and circumstances of death, prepares investigators, law enforcement and forensic anthropologists to pinpoint and reconstruct the chain of events of a crime. 

It’s a fascinating scientific process.  Bodies are studied out in the open, buried in debris and brush, inside small structures, inside cars, and various other conditions.  This can help to facilitate investigations in order to locate and capture the perpetrator.  The more forensic professionals know about human decomposition, the more cases that can be solved in the process.   


There are five basic decomposition stages; all depend upon the environmental conditions and temperatures:

1.                  Fresh

2.                  Putrefaction

3.                  Black putrefaction

4.                  Butyric fermentation

5.                  Dry decay

For example, the body begins to lose heat from the average core temperature of 98.6 degrees F.  It falls to the surrounding environment, indoors or outdoors.  As a general rule under normal conditions, the body will lose approximately 1.5 degrees every hour after death.

There are five known body farm facilities in the Unites States:

University of Tennessee at Knoxville

The original “body farm” is the University of Tennessee Anthropological Research Facility.  In 1971, Anthropologist Dr. William M. Bass was the official state anthropologist for Tennessee and consulted on many cases involving human remains.

It consists of a 2 ½ acre wooded plot surrounded by razor wire fences.  At any time, there are number of bodies placed in different settings left to decompose, varying conditions and environments.  Bodies are obtained from various sources from unclaimed bodies from the morgue to individuals who have voluntarily donated their bodies for research.  Approximately, 120 bodies are donated to the facility every year.  

Western Carolina University

This facility is part of the Western Carolina Human Identification Laboratory.  The research “body farm” area is the size of a garage and can accommodate approximately six bodies at a time.  In addition, they also train cadaver dogs at this facility.   

California University of Pennsylvania

This is a remote facility located 45 miles southeast of the city of Pittsburgh.  It has access to over 200 acres generously donated.  This facility also conducts crime scene investigation training and other related activates. 

Sam Houston State University

This is a state-of-the-art research and training facility designed to advance academic and technical knowledge in the application of forensic science disciplines to crime scenes.  Bodies are willed and donated.  This facility is a 247 acre of land that is adjacent to the Sam Houston National Forest.  It is a contained outdoor facility with a variety of environmental conditions, including fluvial environment.  Webcams are located at various locations of the outdoor facility to monitor timing of post-mortem activities on and off campus.

Texas State University

The Forensic Anthropology Center at Texas State is a human decomposition research laboratory where questions related to outdoor crime scenes and decomposition rates are investigated.  Most of the facility is around 7 acres, but the Freeman working ranch as approximately 4,200 acres available for research practices.  They accept body donations.  The overall research is to assist law enforcement and the medico-legal community in their investigations. 


Book & Crime Talk:
Books: Compulsion = Dead Game = Silent Partner = Screenwriting

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Comment by Jennifer Thomson on June 2, 2011 at 11:39am
Very interesting stuff there. Glad I ate before I read it though.

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