The Body Farm, Where Forensic Scientists Look Death in the Face, is Not Your Average Science Lab

Thursday March 14, 2019 Written by Marina Kamenev with illustration by Olivier Schrauwen

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Professor Shari Forbes knows where the bodies are buried. And where they’re placed above ground, too.

As a forensic chemist and director of the Australian Facility for Taphonomic Experimental Research (AFTER) – a scientific set-up colloquially known as a body farm – she is responsible for 48 hectares of bushland in the lower Blue Mountains where researchers place recently deceased human remains. The dead decay and yield information to the scientists, most of whom work closely with law enforcement on criminal investigations.

Forbes became interested in forensics during the final year of her science degree, researching a specific area of a cemetery where bodies refused to decompose. “Like most things in forensic research, one thing leads to another,” she says. Those things included a PhD in decomposition chemistry, a six-year stint in Canada – where she became the founding director of forensic science at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology – and an Australian Research Council Future Fellowship. During this time Forbes worked continuously with police, helping with missing persons and crime investigations. It’s this experience, plus her impressive résumé, that led to the opportunity of setting up the Southern Hemisphere’s first body farm.

Only the U.S. has similar research centres, which have been around since the ’80s. The first to open was the Anthropology Research Facility at the University of Tennessee, set up by William Bass – a pioneering forensic anthropologist, nicknamed “The Bone Detective”, whose work inspired Patricia Cornwell’s 1994 novel The Body Farm. Now there are six body farms run by various American universities, each collecting data specific to their environment. AFTER, which the University of Technology Sydney opened last year, is established in what Forbes calls a “temperate” climate, and will give Australian forensic specialists – as well as university students training to become them – a chance to secure vital crime-solving data.

Currently there are 30 bodies scattered around the farm. The program has apparently been popular with donors: 600 people have pledged to leave their remains to the Surgical and Anatomical Science Facility at UTS, and many of them will end up at AFTER. Some of those donors “who are thankfully still with us” even send Forbes a Christmas card every year. All carry a release document (“like a driver’s licence”) and have alerted next of kin to their wishes. “We ask all of our donors to make their family aware that they won’t have a funeral service,” Forbes says. “They can have a memorial service, but when you donate, your body comes to the university as soon as possible after death.”

Human bodies tend to deteriorate in more or less the same way each time. After the cells are deprived of oxygen they lose the ability to fight off bacteria, which then take over. Insects arrive, sometimes the skin slips off and decomposition occurs. But there are infinite variables to this process, starting with who the person was – the life they lived to end up as this particular physical specimen – the way they died, and the body’s surroundings. Thanks to forensic research we know that a thin person decomposes more slowly than a fat person. A body will deteriorate more quickly under black plastic than it does under clear plastic. And if a body is found encased in concrete it may appear fresher than it is, so crime investigators need to look at a time of death years, rather than months, in the past. Then there is climate: when bodies are left out in the hot sun, in a dry area, the environment may prove too hostile for insects or bacteria and the corpses will mummify. If they are placed in the shade in a warm climate, soft tissue will be devoured down to the skeleton.

There is a mass grave containing six bodies, which will be opened in two-and-a-half years to uncover how remains decompose next to each other.

Insects are crucial time-of-death indicators. Blowflies are typically the first to arrive at the scene and lay eggs. They hatch into maggots. Maggots eat decaying flesh and proliferate in a predictable manner, so their lifecycle is used to establish a timeline. Scavengers are also instrumental to forensic investigators. Rats will eat a bone if it’s still greasy or wet. Their teeth marks are easy to identify because they chew the marrow. Squirrels eat bones when they’re dry, indicating a body has been decomposing at least a year.

Ask Forbes if Australian wildlife will be used as time-of-death indicators and she’ll explain that AFTER is not currently open to scavengers. The high security fence prevents large mammals from entering the facility, and cages cover any bodies left above ground. “Every part of each donor needs to be tracked from a licensing point of view,” she explains. “More importantly we have neighbours out there, and we would never want birds taking remains and dropping them on properties close to us.”

Forbes is fiercely protective of her donors. She does not allow reporters into the facility and refuses to give details on individuals involved in the program. “Our demographic tends to be older,” is all she will say. One future donor who’s happy to speak is Dr David van Reyk, a pathology lecturer at UTS whose commitment to the university will extend well beyond his lifetime. “I spent most of my adult life volunteering for medical research projects at the uni,” he says. “I’ve gotten to know Shari Forbes and I really like her. So when this came up, I thought this would be the ultimate way of volunteering.” Van Reyk has no preference for the type of analysis he will contribute to; he’s happy to be used for whatever AFTER wants to research. “They might need a cadaver for drowning, so they would put me in swimmers and bury me in a river bank,” he says.

So far there are more than 50 research projects underway at AFTER. Odontologists (forensic dentists) are tracking how long teeth last in the mandible and how long they last in the environment. DNA experts are examining how best to preserve soft tissue in order to get an accurate genetic profile from decomposed remains – particularly in a mass disaster scenario. Entomologists are analysing which insects arrive at a body and how long they linger. There is also a mass grave containing six bodies, which will be opened in two-and-a-half years to uncover how remains decompose next to each other.

In the U.S., body farms have made fascinating contributions to the field of forensics. The Forensic Anthropology Center includes a collection of 1700 donated skeletons catalogued by age, sex, ancestry, cause of death and pre-death body mass. The donors were born between 1894 and 2016: a sample of the current U.S. population that can be used as a reference point when unknown skeletal material is found.

The Complex for Forensic Anthropology Research (CFAR) in Southern Illinois has a focus on scavenging and body decomposition in different environments. It is notorious for an incident in which a lawnmower operator accidentally ran over two cadavers, though researchers there were quick to use the results in a study, aptly titled ‘Lemonade from Lemons’. Forbes explains the paper portrayed a scenario where human remains in a backyard were unintentionally mowed over. “The purpose was to determine whether different mowers leave different cut marks that are evident and can be confirmed as marks from a mower, rather than from the blade of, for example, a knife. This is important for the anthropologist to be able to say that the cut marks occurred post-mortem and were not related to the cause of death.”

Forbes’ own research focuses on one of the most repugnant aspects of death: the odour. And it’s something she knows well: “Probably the most pungent component is hydrogen sulphide, which is rotten egg gas. There’s also a lot of methane and ammonia, which are smells that you get from a landfill.” Her work is aimed at pinpointing the moment that scent changes after a person dies, so that cadaver dogs are able to retrieve a body, especially in a mass-disaster scenario. “If your dog is trained to smell decomposition but that scent is not there, you are asking it to do something that it can’t,” she explains.

There are aspects of death that Forbes finds distressing, like the times she has had to work with child remains. She also finds working with families can be overwhelming. “You can see how emotional they are and you can feel empathetic towards them just in terms of not knowing what happened to their loved ones. That’s why when we can provide a resolution it feels like we have done our job. It certainly doesn’t make them happy, but it provides that opportunity to start the grieving process.”

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