Composing a podcast is much more organic than you think. You have an idea and then that idea enters your brain, giving birth to more ideas or new paths that you could explore. This is exactly what happened while researching What’s Left. My producer Anita and I interviewed two forensic scientists (you’ll meet them in episode 7) and they showed us pictures of what the body farm on their laptop looks like. We were fascinated to learn that much of what scientists know about decomposition comes from facilities like these.
What happens on a body farm (or human decomposition facility)? Human bodies are left outside to decompose in nature. As the soft tissues disappear, scientists record the time it takes, what happens at each stage, and the environmental factors that affect the process — the weather, the wipers, even the slope on which the body lies. All human remains on a body farm come from people who have chosen to donate their bodies to science, especially the science of decomposition.
The impact of research on the body farm
Initially, not everyone joined this type of research. Many people saw it as blasphemous and offensive. However, the knowledge that comes from this study can have a major impact on homicide cases. For forensics, it is important to know how long it takes for the body to decompose under certain conditions. When, for example, skeletal remains are found in the forest, law enforcement officers with a basic knowledge of the science can estimate how long the remains have been there. This becomes the first step in identifying someone and uncovering their murder.
Part of the mystique that surrounds these facilities is how they have been portrayed in popular culture – in books, movies and TV shows.
Fascination with modern body farms
Scientists prefer the term “human decomposition facility,” but the more colloquial term “body farm” was coined by a best-selling author in the 1990s and is retained. Writer Patricia Cornwell published a murder mystery called The Body Farm in 1994 about the murder of an 11-year-old girl in rural North Carolina. The protagonist in the story, Kay Scarpetta, visits a corpse farm in Tennessee to help her gather scientific information that ultimately solves the case. Although fiction, the book is inspired by the nation’s first human decomposition facility, the University of Tennessee Center for Forensic Anthropology, established by Dr. William Bass in 1971. Another character in the novel, forensic scientist Dr. Thomas Katz. , is based on Bass.
Bass and writer John Jefferson have also published their own mysterious murder novels based on fictional events on a corpse farm. They write under the pseudonym Jefferson Bass. The main character in their books is also based on Dr. Bass.
Many TV shows from Bones to CSI to Law and Order to The X-Files have included body farm segments. Many of the stories are based on the facility at the University of Tennessee.
The study of decomposition is growing
There are seven body farms in the United States today. The facility at the University of West Carolina was officially opened in 2007 and was only the second in the country. Other body farms are located at universities in Texas, Illinois, Colorado, Michigan and Florida. The largest facility is located at Texas State University and covers 26 acres. There are also body farms in Canada, the United Kingdom, India and Australia.
While novels, TV shows and movies have made these places look dark and eerie, the settings are actually quite beautiful. The facility in North Carolina is also known as the “Forest” (short for Forensic Osteology Research Station) and is nestled in the small mountain town of Kalouhy. When one chooses to donate one’s body to science, many say they see the process as a return to nature, a return to earth, the cycle of life as it is meant to be. And the people who work in these facilities have respect for the bodies that have been 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 now available in all podcast apps. Find transcripts of episodes at www.whatremainspodcast.com.