The Body Farm: Forensic Investigative Studies in Real Time

Just north of Tampa, there is a five-acre field that is locked up tight behind a sturdy chain link fence. It looks just like any green field, but inside are real-time science experiments that could help medical examiners all across the state of Florida.

A Field of Cadavers

Inside this field are bodies that are busy doing a very simple thing: they are decaying. Their rate of decay and the way they interact with the ground around them is being carefully recorded. That might sound just a little bit cold-blooded, but the cadaver examinationreality is that these bodies are doing a great service. They could very well help solve mysteries or even cold cases that have been hanging around for years.

Donations to Science

The bodies come from the University of South Florida, where they have been donated. They provide a vital investigative and training link by allowing students and authorities to observe exactly what might happen to a body in Florida’s hot, humid climate. By examining the rate of decay and how the bodies behave in this environment, it might be possible to answer questions about bodies from crime scenes.

The First Body Farms

Body farms, or research facilities that look into the rate of decomposition, were thought up by anthropologist William Burnsmith in 1972. There are seven facilities in the United States, including one really big one in Texas. There is also one in operation in Australia. By placing the donated cadavers in various environments, it is possible for forensic anthropologists or other interested scientists to discover just how a body will behave in a particular environment. The facilities are also used to train dogs to sniff out corpses.

The Idea for the Name

The term “body farm” comes from the Patricia Cornwell mystery, The Body Farm, that depicts the death of an 11-year-old girl who is found wrapped in orange safety tape. The book is #5 in the Scarpetta series. Scarpetta, the lead character, uses information for a local “body farm” to solve the case.

A Grisly but Valuable Tool

When the University of Texas received a donation to create a body farm, there were concerns from the municipality and from the airport because they feared that circling vultures could create a hazard at the airport. When the site for the facility was announced, they discovered that the vultures provided a new area for study: the effects of wild animal depredation on human corpses.

While these facilities for studying decomposition seem grim and are often met with opposition from local residents because of the sight and smell of decomposing corpses, the information gathered from the different facilities is valuable to forensic teams that are trying to establish the time of death from the decomposition of the remains. Some farms have even set up experiments, such as locking a body in a trunk or submersing it in water.  Knowing how quickly a body will be decomposed in certain circumstances can help place the time of death and may be crucial information in a criminal investigation.