How Body Farms Are Helping Forensics Solve Murders

  • Body farms are facilities where corpses are placed in a variety of environments and scenarios to study how they decompose.
  • This research can help forensic scientists and police figure out what has happened to a body involved in a murder or other crimes.
  • Bodies are usually donated to these facilities, but there is controversy surrounding the use of humans in such research.

Amy Rattenbury knows where the bodies are buried—and is only too happy for the police to find out about it.

She is a researcher in a facility that would be many people’s worst nightmare. Known as a body farm, it is where Rattenbury studies how bodies decompose in a range of situations.

The work is useful to forensic pathology because it can give investigators a better idea of how a person died, where the body had been, and how long it had been there.

For example, are those marks on a bone from a scavenger’s teeth…or from a knife? What might the presence of certain insects reveal? Has someone tried to conceal the body’s identity?

Researchers prefer to call such labs “decomposition research facilities” or “taphonomic research facilities,” taphonomy being the study of how organisms decay.

They are not without controversy, however, and face various ethical, cultural and legal concerns. There have even been instances of donors not being fully informed about the type of research their body will be used for after it has been donated to science.

Newsweek has spoken to some of those in the field to find out more about their groundbreaking work. This article contains images some readers may find disturbing.

A stock photo showing forensics at a crime scene. Body farm research looks at all the stages of decomposition, how fast they occur, and which species of decomposing organisms are involved.
iStock / Getty Images

“There are a huge range of different areas to study within this,” Rattenbury, a senior lecturer in forensic science at Wrexham Glyndŵr University in the U.K., told Newsweek via email.

“Some examples include looking at how different burial or deposition contexts affect the speed of decomposition; recording what insects or animals may be attracted to the body and the damage they can cause to it; studying how decomposition can impact the surrounding environment, such as changing the soil chemistry or the vegetation; [and] how best to search for and collect evidence and information from scenes such as with cadaver dogs or through excavation practice.”

A 2005 image of a decaying body at the University of Tennessee’s Anthropological Research Facility in Knoxville.
Photo by David Howells/Corbis via Getty Images

Decomposition and the Body

Bodies decompose in a series of steps as the tissues break down and bacteria start acting, the speed of which depends massively on where the body is placed.

“The environment plays a significant part in the rates, stages and features of decomposition observed,” Rattenbury said. “Temperature, weather, oxygen, access by scavengers, clothing etc all cause differences. A general rule is that exposed bodies will decompose faster than buried bodies which are again faster than those submerged in water, but it is not so simple and multiple factors must be considered. It is also why research from one location doesn’t directly translate to another.”

In general, bodies exposed to air decompose the quickest due to bacteria, insects, and animal scavengers, while those that are buried take longer. (Ever wonder what happens to a body in space?)

Stock image of a closeup of a dead moose’s head. Flies can be seen gathered on the decomposing body. Bodies exposed to air decompose the quickest due to bacteria, insects, and animal scavengers, while those that are buried take longer, experts say.

“Bodies in water cut off some of these methods as well, but decompose faster than buried,” Adrienne L. Brundage, an assistant professor in ​​forensic entomology at Texas A&M University, told Newsweek via email.

“A rule of thumb I use is bodies exposed to air can take around 1-2 weeks to skeletonize here, bodies in water can take 3 weeks, and buried can take 8 weeks. This all depends on temperature, humidity, etc. The environment supports decomposition as well. If it’s too cold, the body will mummify. If it’s too dry, the body will mummify. If the body is in shape it’ll take longer to decompose.”

Why and How are Bodies Used on Body Farms?

The bodies at taphonomic research facilities are placed in a variety of different environments so that researchers can measure the difference in decomposition rates.

“Human remains, in various stages of decomposition are then placed in different environments, such as in shallow graves, submerged in water, or left on the surface,” Mehzeb Chowdhury, an assistant professor in criminology at Northumbria University in the U.K, told Newsweek via email. “The nominated situations/scenarios undergo a careful selection process by researchers. The idea is to simulate a wide range of environmental conditions that may occur in real-life cases.”

Bodies decaying in a water trough, at the University of Tennessee’s Anthropological Research Facility.
Photo by David Howells/Corbis via Getty Images

This can inform investigators of crucial details about a body’s history. If a body was initially kept in the open before it was buried, for example, forensic scientists may be able to figure that out based on the signs of both of these storage methods.

“The work facilities like ours do is used to develop and test models for human decomposition so that forensic anthropologists can generate evidence-based estimates for how long someone has been decomposing,” Nicholas Passalacqua, an associate professor and director of forensic anthropology at Western Carolina University, told Newsweek via email.

“Additionally, data from facilities like ours can be used to help others understand other factors that might have affected remains while they were decomposing, so maybe there are marks on the bone, and we can help professionals understand that those marks are from the teeth of scavengers and not a knife, or based on how bodies decompose we might be able to help others find skeletal elements that may be missing from their forensic case,” Passalacqua added.

They also serve to improve the search and recovery of remains because the researchers can recognize the signs that a body leaves behind if it is moved or the effects a hidden body has on its surroundings.

Stock image of the top half of a human skeleton from an archaeological excavation. The presence of certain insects can give away where a body has been and for how long.

“If we are better equipped in knowing what to look for then we are more likely to recover the bodies, making it easier to prove that a murder has indeed occurred and potentially uncovering a wealth of other evidence from the body and recovery site which helps investigators determine who is responsible,” Rattenbury said.

These facilities make it easier for investigators to tell if the body has been moved after death, or if any attempt was made to obscure its identity. The presence of certain insects can also give away where a body has been and for how long.

“If we know the general pattern of decomposition we can do things like estimate the time of death, if the body was moved, if there was a body in a particular area that was moved later (we can see changes in the soil and surrounding vegetation), and unusual situations,” Brundage said. “We can then replicate common situations with the bodies and use that info to better investigate.

“For example, I teach detectives how to use insects to give them information about the body. Arson investigators will burn bodies in different situations to train their investigators to better recognize burned body parts and how to work a scene.”

Stock image of a skeleton of a large dead mammal in a field of plants. Taphonomic research is also useful for examining novel and previously untested forensic techniques.

Taphonomic research is also useful for examining novel and previously untested forensic techniques.

“[These techniques include] the effects and interaction between various compounds and human remains. They have proven useful in formulating new methods for identifying traces of drugs or other substances in and on dead bodies, and more notably have played an important part in forensic detection and criminal prosecutions,” Chowdhury said.

Where Do The Bodies Come From?

These facilities usually obtain corpses from donors who specified that their bodies should be used for scientific research, or even those who choose to donate their bodies to a taphonomic facility.

A decaying body at the University of Tennessee’s Anthropological Research Facility from 2005.
Photo by David Howells/Corbis via Getty Images

“Donors usually make arrangements for their bodies to be used for scientific research after their death through a body donation programme at a university, medical school, or specialized facility depending on the location and jurisdiction,” Chowdhury said. “This is the standard procedure, but there are various instances of irregularities which have seen bodies being procured illegally and/or unethically.”

Passalacqua said Western Carolina University uses “human skeletal remains in classroom and lab contexts from consenting, known donors.”

Some facilities, like Rattenbury’s in the U.K., use mammal bodies instead for their research. “Here in the U.K., there are no human decomposition research facilities currently and so most of the research is done with pigs, although smaller mammals such as rabbits, rats and mice are sometimes used,” Rattenbury said.

Ethics of Body Farming

There is some controversy surrounding the use of human bodies in this kind of research, ranging from ethical, legal, and cultural concerns.

“Some believe that the use of donated human bodies in body farms is disrespectful and dehumanizing,” Chowdhury said. “Others express unease at the use of human remains in such research, leading to the potential abuses of power or the mishandling of the bodies (both of which have happened). Legal concerns also exist particularly with regard to the handling and disposal of human remains.”

While donors are typically required to give informed consent for their bodies to be used in research, there have been instances where donors were not fully informed of the nature of the research or the potential uses of their bodies, Chowdhury explained.

Culturally, the use of human remains in research is a contentious matter, as it’s often seen as a violation of cultural or religious beliefs.

“Rituals for honoring and disposing of the dead have existed since the dawn of civilization. The idea that body farms expose human remains to the elements to ravage over time is uncomfortable for many,” Chowdhury said. “It is therefore imperative that these facilities are operated ethically and in compliance with local laws and regulations to minimize potential harm and maintain the respect and dignity of the individuals whose bodies are donated to science.”

Passalacqua argues that aside from generating education and research for forensic anthropology, taphonomic facilities provide a cheap and greener alternative to burial or cremation.

“Body farms like ours provide a service to the local community where those interested in green burial or alternatives to traditional funerals have a very low cost option for what they might do with their body after they pass (the only cost associated with donating to our facility are any transportation costs for the funeral home to bring the body here, which are typically less than $700),” he said. “So body farms really provide a community service as well as an educational and scientific mission.”

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