The Google alert that I have for the Body Farm has been active this month. Obviously most of the updates are about the new Jefferson Bass novel, Cut to the Bone and the authors’ various book-signing appearances.
One day last week, the alert contained the headline: “We need human body farms, says real-life Dr. Bones.” That’s odd, I thought. We have a human body farm here in Knoxville and there are others in Texas, Colorado and North Carolina. I clicked on the link. The news story was from England’s Daily Express.
The article was about forensic anthropologist Dr. Anna Williams. She does research on decomposing pigs but would like to study the real deal. My favorite part of the article was her use of British expressions such as “binbags” and “swings and roundabouts.”
The sheer size of the US means there is perhaps more opportunity for a site to be remote. As Dr Williams explains: “The research facility in Tennessee is a massive site; a section of land that has been fenced off.
“At the beginning they used vagrants and people who donated their bodies. Now there is a massive waiting list of people who want to leave their bodies to be examined at the body farm. Any way you can think of disposing of a body they will do it.
“So there are bodies sitting in cars, hanging from trees, wrapped up in duvets, wrapped up in binbags, so they can see how they decompose.
“In the UK universities we have facilities where we use dead pigs. I set one up at Cranfield and will be setting one up at Huddersfield. There are three or four around the country and the biggest is in Preston at the University of Central Lancashire.”
So are pigs good enough to track decomposition? “It’s swings and roundabouts because with pigs you pretty much get them when you want them and at the age and the right size but with humans you have to wait for whoever dies and whoever is next,” says Dr Williams.
Ultimately the problem with every facility is it only tells you how decomposition works in that climate. So the Tennessee one is perfect for Tennessee’s climate, its flora and fauna and its insects but it doesn’t really help with the UK. That is why we need one here.”