What Happens at The Body Farm?

file7791344524127 (2)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.

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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.

The Body Farm in TN

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.

 

About Sue Coletta

Member of Mystery Writers of America, Sisters in Crime, and International Thriller Writers, Sue Coletta is a multi-published author in numerous anthologies, and her forensics articles have appeared in InSinC Quarterly. In addition to her popular crime resource blog, Sue’s a radio show host—check out "Partners In Crime" in the menu bar—the communications manager for the Serial Killer Project and Forensic Science and founder of #ACrimeChat on Twitter.

32 Comments

  1. Sue,
    The Body Farm – a fascinating and educational article-gruesome in its detail, but so much good info. Thank you for sharing it.
    Frances
    Frances Dunn recently posted…GARAGE SALE MANIAMy Profile

  2. YOU KNOW YOU HAVE READ TO MUCH . . . WHEN YOU HAVE READ IT ALL- THIS AUTHOR SUE COLETTA IS ONE TO RECKON WITH A VERY GOOD AUTHOR, I AM WAITING FOR HER NEXT BOOK. A NEW FAN FOR LIFE… THANK YOU FOR A SCARY RIDE…

  3. First of all thanks, for showing us that always doing the own research is mandatory. A reminder especially helpful for those of us who happen to have limited amounts of self-discipline… 😉

    And inspiration came, too. I imagined, though vaguely, a story idea about Clyde Barker, the protagonist police dog solving cases, while all around those silly humanoids, police-pupils and pathology-students at the farm, just seem too busy vomiting at corpses…

    It is comforting to know that all the hard work can be well-done and still some fun. Once more praise to our host, Sue Coletta!

    • *blush* You’re too kind, Andre.

      Love your idea about a protagonist police dog who solves cases. Wonderful!!! The inner dialogue could be hilarious as he mocks the humans.

      • In my own personal ego-world sermon like ‘Ben, lets train harder to ensure we remain good enough to be guests on biker-babes list’ may suffice.

        But I am actually not very kind, many call my fierce, unforgiving, and easily enraged instead. I am factual.

        You are doing a lot of higher quality work. Marred is no stand alone. Your website aka landing page, your blog on it, your social interaction and casual professionalism, and the comparably extensive help you offer to less successful authors are all showing that the title ‘Author Sue Coletta’ has long been earned by you.

        If you want to score a handful of bestsellers more before you call yourself a ‘Bestselling Author’ I respect that. Especially due your motivation for it. No money and no fame can cure the psycho-drain of those who betrayed themselves for worldly pleasures.

        And see another fact, too: You did score a bestseller without being merely puppet-on-a-string to some industrial boss behind the scenes! But what really proves you an author is that you never rested on that ‘early access’, instead working and learning aka studying on and on… You grow with the role, and that separates you from the losers & lowers.

  4. Good and thorough piece, Sue. Thanks so much for sharing. 🙂 — Suzanne Joshi

  5. I notice how long this post is and almost ‘saved it for later’ but could not stop reading. This is mind-blowing stuff. Riveting.

  6. I worked in a funeral home for a few years and this has filled in so much of what I never knew the morticians and embalmers may have had to deal with. Not that I was ever allowed in the embalming room, I came across my share of bodies and was fascinated with the entire ritual of the funeral. Didn’t help, that I could see and speak with the dead. They were a real hoot sometimes. Most of the time, they did not know they were dead and what all the fuss was about.

  7. Hi Sue! Great post & very accurate. Here’s a little extra for your readers. A colleague of mine, Gail Anderson who is a forensic entomologist (she’s affectionally known in the inner circles as “The Bug Bitch” 😉 did an interesting study on marine decomp where she put pig carcasses out in the ocean and time lapsed videoed them. What happened is that they didn’t so much decomposed, rather they were devoured. Here’s the video link:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B4yDi_wWMVk

    Here’s also a link to the Popular Science article about how sophistocated her recording setup was:

    http://www.popsci.com/science/article/2013-06/burial-sea

    Another tidbit – Gail did a guest post for me on the science of forensic entomology:

    http://dyingwords.net/forensic-entomology-insects-solve-crime/#sthash.SKsn69FM.dpbs

    Hope others find this gruesome stuff as interesting as we do 🙂

  8. That’s a lot of intense stuff that happens at a body farm!

    I worked with a CP a number of years ago who lives in CA. She has 3 cadaver dogs and is usually called in at search/rescue point. We fell out of touch over time but I remember some of her stories as being very interesting!

    As always, you share such interesting information!

    P.S….question for you….do you have any idea how long it would take a large farm animal (say a cow) to reach a “mildly smelly” stage after death?

    • Great question, Mae. I would assume they would decompose at the same rate as humans. When putrification sets in the body starts to break down the internal organs, which produces gas. This causes bloating and skin discoloration, as well as the foul odor. That said, Garry could better tell you the exact hours after death this occurs. I’ve sent him the question. If he doesn’t show here first, I’ll post the answer when he does.

      • Aww, you’re so sweet. Thanks, Sue!
        I’ll keep poking around on line, too!
        Mae Clair recently posted…My Favorite Tools for Twitter by Mae ClairMy Profile

        • Okay, here’s his answer: “Decomp is primarily tied into two things – mass and temperature. The larger a body is and the warmer the scene temperature, the quicker the decomp process goes. All animals decomp at pretty much the same rate. As for how when a cow would begin to smell, it’d depend on temperature. A good example is the Little Bighorn battle where Custer’s Seventh Cavalry was wiped out. The killings took place at dawn on June 25, 1876 and the daytime temperature went into the high 80’s, possibly 90. By noon the next day, when reinforcements arrived, the bodies of the soldiers were already in early stages of decomp but the bodies of the much larger horses were not just bloated, they’d already ruptured and were severely gassing off. It’s been recorded that the smell was overwhelming.”
          So you’ve got a little play here. If you want the carcass to smell quicker, then have the sun beating on it. If you want a longer delay, put the cow in a cool, shaded area. In either case, since it sounds like animals decay at the same rate as humans, you’ve got about 24 hours. And don’t forget about the blowflies. Any open wounds or orifices will be swarming with flies and maggots. Hope this helps!

          • Being from cow country, and growing up outdoors, I’ve seen many a bloated cow, among others. Basic words like overwhelming are not enough. Imagine a swarm of insects so thick it’s like cloud cover. They get in your mouth, eyes, and ears. Imagine a putrid smell that you can pick up a mile away on a calm day. At ground zero it’s like a skunk went off in your mouth. You’ll still smell it the next day, almost like it got inside your skin where soap can’t reach.

            Another outstanding post today

            • And the buzzing, fly on top of fly, maggots consuming every orifice…gruesome. We get a lot of dead deer and moose around here. In a few different posts I read about the smell staining your clothes. Many professionals who work in this field strip down before entering their homes, refusing to allow their family to smell the horror of what they do all day. Love your description “where soap can’t reach.”

          • Sue (and Garry) thanks for all of that information. It’s awesome and it helps a great deal in working out what I need to accomplish.

            Interesting that you (and/or Garry) referenced the Battle of Little Bighorn. Several years ago I spent an entire year (or more) immersed in reading everything I could get my hands on related to Custer and the Indian-Plains Wars. It’s amazing how much I’ve forgotten. Ack!
            Mae Clair recently posted…My Favorite Tools for Twitter by Mae ClairMy Profile

            • That was Garry. 🙂 Did you read Craig’s comment? He’s dealt with several dead cows, so he might be able to give you even more info.

            • Hi Mae – The Battle of the Little Bighorn has been a fascination for me ever since I stumbled upon a book titled “The Sioux and the Seventh” which was written years ago. What’s fascinating is that it was reprinted in 1978 with handwritten margin notes from a soldier who was with Reno’s unit during the battle. Modern forensics now have recreated the flow of the battle and show that some soldiers, when facing certain death, shot themselves. Hmmm… blog idea….
              Garry Rodgers recently posted…ELVIS PRESLEY — WHAT REALLY KILLED THE KINGMy Profile

  9. Oh, I can’t tell you how much I love this post, especially the part about the cadaver dogs. I’ve done nose work with my dog (not with cadavers, obviously!) and it’s fascinating how sensitive their noses are, and how different their alert positions are. (I, like you, could go on and on about service dogs and their abilities.) You’ve got me all excited to find out even more about The Body Farm.
    Colette Sartor recently posted…Stumbling Toward OptimismMy Profile

    • I’d love to hear more about your nose work. I’m digging into working dogs now, so that’ll be my next post. I’m so glad you liked the post. The documentary was really fascinating. Hard to watch at times, but fascinating.

  10. This is really absolutely fascinating, Sue. And it’s important, I think, for crime writers to understand this information if their stories are to ring true. Not that you asked…but Simon Beckett wrote a really interesting novel (called Whispers of the Dead) that takes place at The Body Farm. It’s the second in his David Hunter series, and I think it’s quite understandable, if that makes sense, without having read the first in the series.

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