What happens at The Body Farm might surprise you. National Geographic has a fantastic YouTube documentary called Secrets of The Body Farm about what forensic anthropologists do at the National Forensic Academy in Tennessee aka The Body Farm—ground zero of forensic anthropology.
Forensic anthropologists come from all over the US to study bodies in various stages of decompensation. National Forensic Academy also allows police and lab technicians to hone their skills by studying fresh bodies in the elements, decomposing corpses, and overgrown skeletons. The end result is more murder cases are solved.
To aid in their training, human and animal bones, bullet casing, and simulated evidence, tarnished by time, are scattered in a wooded area of the facility…just as it would be at a crime scene. This unsettling task isn’t easy, even for professionals, but it is necessary.
How to find a murder victim when the body is buried six feet under?
Secrets of The Body Farm aren’t only for human students. Dogs-in-training are welcomed too. They’re taught to lay down or bark to alert once they find a dead body. Treats are given by the handler to reinforce the task. In order to graduate to a Cadaver Dog, the dogs move on to a series of concrete slabs. Beneath these concrete slabs are human bodies buried at different depths (2ft, 4ft, 6ft, etc) and also simulated bodies made from metal buckets, wood, and plastic. For instance, the bucket for the torso, 2x4s for the limbs, and a plastic plate for the head.
These well-trained dogs first track the outer edge of the slab, then work their way toward the center (if they get that far without finding any corpses). When they come to a suspicious area, their breathing changes. First they inhale deeply, then they stop breathing for a moment while they process the scent. I could go on and on about working dogs. They fascinate me. Stay tuned for an upcoming post about working dogs and their handlers.
Determining Time of Death
Dr. Bass, the founder of The National Forensic Academy, worked a case early in his career where someone had unearthed a grave at a centuries-old cemetery. Police needed to know if the deceased was in his own plot, or if someone added a body to cover-up a murder. After his examination, Dr. Bass concluded the person died about a year before.
Unfortunately he was off by about two hundred years. But if not for this particular case and his inability to determine time of death, The Body Farm might not be in existence today.
In the 1980’s, Bass began studying how insects and environmental elements impacted a corpse. I’ve discussed entomology before in Blood, Bodies, and Bugs. Briefly, human remains left outside attract blowflies, who lay eggs almost immediately. The summer heat causes those eggs to hatch within hours. Maggots feed on the proteins and fat. Two weeks later, they form cocoons. As they transform into adult flies they emerge from the cocoon, leaving behind pupa casings. And the cycle continues. Others join the party, too. Yellow jackets feast on nutrients in human remains and beetles nibble cartilage off the bones.
If the victim is left indoors, it takes a few days for blowflies to find their way inside. So when looking at a murder scene, the forensic entomologist searches for pupa casings to help narrow the time of death window. Whether inside or out in the elements, the process of eggs to maggots to pupa casings takes two weeks.
Flies have often sealed a murderer’s fate. Burying a body won’t prevent entomologists from determining what happened. Even though blowflies can’t burrow underground, coffin flies can. About the size of gnats, these fascinating creatures boldly go where others cannot. Coffin flies burrow into soil up to 4-5 feet deep. A similar pattern to blowflies occurs, but it all happens underground.
In one case police found a woman in a garbage bag, knotted at the top and stuffed inside a sealed trash barrel, in a storage unit. The deceased’s daughter, who owned the unit, told police that when her mother passed away (from natural causes – yeah, right) she was so distraught that she placed her mother in the storage unit until she was able to make funeral arraignments.
Obviously detectives didn’t by her story, but in order to make their case they needed more.
Thankfully, the lead detective had studied entomology at The Body Farm. When he examined the remains he recognized coffin flies and pupa casings. This told him the victim was immediately stashed inside the trash bag after her murder. Because in order for the suspect’s story to ring true, there would be evidence of blow flies.
The lack thereof and the presence of coffin flies illuminated the truth and convinced a jury to sentence the loving daughter to life without the possibility of parole. Karma’s a bitch, eh?
Some murderers believe fire can hide their dastardly deeds.
Burnt bones marked a dead end not long ago, but the TN anthropologists were confident other evidence could be gleaned from the ashes. Their question: what happens when fire meets human flesh and bone?
Using donated body parts, they photographed a severed arm before placing it in the fire. Daylight obscures the photos so this process is done under the cover of darkness using night vision. They tested fires at different temperatures, from campfires to blazes with accelerants. What they learned changed how investigators look at charred remains.
As muscles burn their fibers flex and contract, causing the joints to bend as well. The body will always go into a pugilistic posture—also called boxers pose—so if the body is found with extended limbs, it’s a good indication that either joint injury occurred before the burning, or the killer bound his victim before setting them on fire.
The main torso also leaves clues. Scientists asked: will it still keep its pugilistic posture with no limbs? The answers were astounding. Even stumps of limbs still try to protect themselves by drawing in. Next, they asked if decomposing muscles could flex a severed arm. And at what temperature did the body eviscerate?
To fully grasp the patterns they looked at calcination (transformation from dense bone to a chalky material) and burn patterns—shading and charring shows the varying degree of temperatures. There’s so much to learn from bone. If not for the Forensic Academy, science might not have the answers.
Does the rate of decay change if the body is clothed?
To answer the question forensic anthropologists used a donated cadaver, fully clothed, and left him out in the elements for one year. Each day they studied the various stages that took place.
Stage one is the fresh stage. Rigor, algor, and polar mortis sets in.
Stage two is when blowflies, then maggots, consume the protein and fat in human cells. Yellow jackets join in on the feast. Cocoons form and pupa casings are shed as the cycle continues.
Stage three happens inside the body and is the most gruesome. Bacteria gets to work and gases are released. This is when a corpse emits a putrid stench. Marbling also occurs during this stage, caused by the veins extending. Bright red lines leech out like spider webs and show through the skin. But what was the most disturbing was the discoloration of the body—from yellow to reddish purple to black.
The gases in our body are so powerful that there have been cases where a corpse turned a buried casket into a gas chamber—and it exploded through the earth! Can you imagine?
Stage four occurs when the maggot infestation slows way down.
Stage five is mummification. Any remaining skin now has the texture of leather. To watch scientists peel back leathery skin to examine the body cavity was a lot easier than stage three.
By this point the body loses its essence of humanity, if that makes sense. It seemed more like they were examining…I don’t want to say a doll, but something along those lines. It’s hard to describe. If you’re curious, you can find the documentary here. Keep in mind, though, this is not easy viewing. The show depicts human beings who’ve generously donated their bodies to science. As such, they deserve our respect.
Incidentally, the bodies at the Forensic Academy are gifts. If at any time the family can’t handle thinking of their loved one being studied at The Body Farm, the facility will return them. No questions asked.
In early years, The Body Farm wasn’t well known. Until a crime writer visited the National Forensic Academy and wrote about Dr. Bass and the outstanding contributions he and his facility made to forensic science. The Body Farm by Patricia Cornwell raised the National Forensic Academy’s profile and helped bring awareness to the science behind the frightening place littered with the dead.