Keeping corpses company
Makurdi, Benue State, Nigeria
|Photo by cottonbro on Pexels|
Inspired by an error where he had misjudged the time since death—not by hours or days—by 112 years,1 William Bass set up the Anthropological Research Facility in Tennessee. His request to his dean was simple: Give me some land to put dead bodies on.
His research facility, colloquially called the Body Farm (as popularized by the novelist Patricia Cornwell), was set up to allow corpses to decay under different conditions. This was macabre. In his defense, he said: “You know, if I’m talking to the police about how long somebody’s been dead, I better know something about it.”
In his book, Death’s Acres, in which he tells the story of his forensic lab, Dr. Bass writes his dedication to “all victims of murder, all those who mourn them, and all who seek justice on their behalf.”1 This summarizes the object of the Body Farm. The criminal justice system knows that to increase its chances of solving a crime and catching up with a criminal, it must begin its search as soon as possible. The Body Farm, with its studies, would tell for how briefly or long a corpse had been dead.
But it can do even more. For example, from cremated remains, it can tell you whether the person in question was male or female, young or old. It can predict with a level of certainty which race the person belonged to. Furthermore, Bass’s lab can tell you what drugs people were taking before dying—or being murdered. The method for this, Bass says, is quite simple: you simply collect the maggots from the deceased individual, grind them (to form what he insists you call “maggot cocktail”), and analyze them.2 Like magic, these maggots “whisper” to you what they have eaten. It may have been marijuana or cocaine. From these results, a case file is built from the bottom up. It is no wonder then that the American Federal Bureau of Investigation in 2019 marked twenty years of taking field lessons from the Body Farm.3
In the US, over 600,000 people are officially declared missing each year. The bodies of only about 4,000 are recovered.2 Of these, 1,000 remain unidentified for more than a year.2 For investigators, studies at the Body Farm help to shrink the pool of missing people. For example, if a corpse is found to have been dead for over a year, it could not be the same person who went missing two weeks ago. Also, accurately estimating the time since death helps investigators to evaluate alibis. If your alibi was valid nine weeks ago, but the murder occurred five weeks ago, you are technically still a person of interest.
But how does a body decay, really? First, the body is fresh. Then, as insects begin to feed and multiply, eye sockets, for example, begin to gape, and the hair and skin begin to lose their grip on the skull. Second, the body begins to bloat. Bacteria consume the entrails, and the abdomen inflates. The skin turns a shiny reddish brown. The circulatory system—its veins and arteries—make themselves clearly visible, as though outlined by a pen. Third, decomposition begins. Fourth, the body dries out.1
Whatever Bass’s experiments sought to achieve, they were bound to be controversial in a society that was yet to understand his reasoning. In 1985, a crew member of a local healthcare advocacy group, the Solutions to Issues of Concern to Knoxvillians (SICK), stumbled onto the grounds of the Body Farm.1 Once there, he had seen decomposing bodies within the enclosure. He was not bemused. A protest was soon organized. When Bass successfully explained his activity, the protesters demanded the facility be moved away from the public (and the public’s nose). Bass responded by putting a chain-link fence around his research property. One of the banners of the protester read: “This makes us SICK.”1
Another controversy involved the identities of the decomposing bodies. Most of the bodies decomposing at the Farm at the time were unclaimed.1 It was the state’s responsibility to bury unclaimed corpses, and the cost to do so was $700. Decomposition was free. Unbeknownst to Bass, some of these bodies were even of military veterans. Having fought in the Korean War, he too was a veteran.1 Broadcasters soon accused him of mistreating and being disrespectful to veterans. The matter gained traction and soon came up for a vote in a Tennessee Senate committee hearing. The motion to close the Body Farm lost by a 5–4 vote.1 This was how close it came to being shut down. Years later, more individuals willed themselves to be used in its experiments. Since 2003, donated bodies have been a greater source of corpses than unclaimed ones—in essence, the people have voted—and this time, the program has received overwhelming support.
Most medical examiners are pathologists. Bass is not. He is an anthropologist. While pathologists can be remarkably accurate in declaring the time of death, using the gold standard measurements of algor mortis (body temperature), rigor mortis (stiffness), and livor mortis (the settling of blood), their accuracy becomes shaky as these signs fade away. Bass’s experiments tend to excel from this point, extending the horizon of forensic pathology and giving what he says is “the satisfaction of knowing that I’ve helped a family, or helped a society put away somebody that probably should be put away.”1
With more body farms arising around the world, and with more people willing their bodies to be so used, the possibilities for discovery are endless. And they are a fitting tribute to the first that Dr. Bass birthed.
- Bass B, Jefferson J. Death’s Acre. New York: GP Putnam’s Sons; 2003.
- Ebersole R. “Down on the body farm: Unlocking the forensic secrets of decaying corpses.” Undark, 2019. Accessed March 13, 2023. https://undark.org/2019/11/11/how-microbes-could-aid-forensic-detectives/.
- United States Federal Bureau of Investigation. “Unearthing Stories for 20 Years at the ‘Body Farm.’” 2019. Accessed March 13, 2023. https://fbi.gov/news/stories/body-farm-20th-anniversary-032019.
NATER AKPEN is a fourth-year medical student who came to study medicine after briefly pursuing architecture. He is interested in people and their goals: what helps them reach those goals and what prevents them. To him, Benue State in Nigeria is home.
Submitted for the 2022–23 Medical Student Essay Contest