Medical Science - Other

Body Farm

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Skeletal remains are found in a shallow grave near a river. Law enforcement personnel are present to take photos, gather evidence, collect the bones, take them back to a lab, and study the rate of decomposition.

The Body Farm

Thanks to facilities such as the Forensic Anthropology Center at the University of Tennessee Knoxville, scientists and law enforcement personnel now have the knowledge and understanding of exactly how the human body decomposes in different situations. Also called the “Body Farm,” a name taken from Patricia Cornwell’s bestselling novel from 1994 about the research facility in Knoxville, Dr. Bill Bass has been the pioneer who saw the need for a facility like this from early on.

In order for justice to be served, in order for the scientists and law enforcement personnel to be able to answer the tough questions such as, “How long has this body been here?” then they would need to study actual human corpses in similar situations.

Forensic Anthropologists

Unlike what you see on TV or what you read in novels, forensic anthropologists recover and examine the human skeletal remains for law enforcement. This means they will excavate the bones, create a biological profile, such as whether the victim was male or female, their age, and other factors, and finally, they may also provide details on any trauma they notice on the skeletal remains, such as a crushed skull, broken bones, or bullet holes located in bones. Forensic anthropologists do not assist with the gathering of trace evidence, DNA testing, any type of ballistics testing that may need to be completed, nor conducting of autopsies. If you are interested in a career in forensic science, you can visit the website for the American Academy of Forensic Sciences.

Other Body Farms

Currently, there are five body farms located in the United States, with one under consideration at a location in India. The location at Western Carolina University in Cullowhee, North Carolina is only approximately 59 square feet and holds anywhere from six to ten bodies. There are two locations in Texas: one at Texas State University in San Marcos and another at Sam Houston State University in Huntsville. The San Marcos location has a five acre plot to study in.

The newest body farm is located in southwest Pennsylvania, a 222-acre plot of land donated to California University of Pennsylvania. Many researchers were excited about this new facility as it was located further north than any of the other farms.

Dr. Gerald Laporte, Policy Program Manager and Physical Scientist at the National Institute of Justice at the Department of Justice said, “This has a tremendous research benefit, (sic) because there’s not a lot of research that looks at how bodies decompose under climatic conditions up in the Northeast.”


Cadavers for the body farm program come mainly from donors who willingly donate their bodies in the name of science and justice. Other cadavers are those unclaimed bodies left at the medical examiner’s office.

Many different people from all different career fields come to study at these body farms. The main purpose is to study what happens to a body between the time of death and the time of recovery. Entomologists look at the type of bugs and larvae in and around the remains to estimate time of death. Others look at the biological and physical reactions that have occurred to the body, such as the amount of flesh or fat left, if any. These are key points to a murder investigation and can help the police locate the murderer.

Body farms, though controversial to some, are extremely important in the fight against crime. The kind of information that scientists and law enforcement have learned from these locations are invaluable.


Jefferson Bass Online

Raymunt, Monica. "Down on the Body Farm: Inside the Dirty World of Forensic Science." The Atlantic Online. 2 December 2010. Web 28 October 2011. 

University of Tennessee Knoxville Forensic Anthropology Center Online

More about this author: Shelly Lange

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