Ranch Dressing

A lengthy article in Oxford American about the Body Ranch at Texas State University in San Marcos pointed out a huge difference between it and the Body Farm in Knoxville. The identity of one of the donors was revealed in a 2012 newspaper story.

The article makes fascinating comparisons between the Body Ranch and the Buddhist practice of “sky burial.” A Zoroastrian sect and some Native American tribes practice similar rituals in which bodies of the dead are left to be eaten by vultures.

The family in the article was understandably proud that their loved one had donated her body to science. What they didn’t take into account was that some friends and colleagues didn’t know about the donation. They learned of it after the youngest sibling gave permission for the Associated Press to use his mother’s name in a newspaper story. Then another brother shared the link on Facebook and wrote, “Hey look, Mom got eaten by vultures! Awesome.”

While the family members were happy about seeing their mother’s skull in the newspaper, most of their friends and acquaintances were upset by it. Apparently the woman’s dental work was recognizable in the photo.

At the University of Tennessee, none of the donors are identified by name. Their skeletons are placed in boxes with a serial number and the sex, race and age of the person. The serial number tells what year they died and the order in which they were received. For example, the first donation to be received next year will be assigned the number 01-15D. The 15 will stand for 2015 and 01 means they were first. The D stands for donated.

When I interviewed Dr. Bill Bass for East Tennessee PBS, we sat in front of cardboard boxes containing donated skeletons. The TV crew agreed to blur any visible serial numbers as an added precaution.

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