Body Farm: Listening to the corpses…

What is it?

Literally, it means a farm with bodies. To be precise, it is a farm with dead bodies either donated by the deceased families, or they are the unclaimed bodies in hospitals, or morgues. If zooming in even more, it is a place that has dead bodies freely lied on the ground, in order to study the decomposition process of the cadaver.

The rate of decomposition depends on some environmental factors, for example weather (heat? cold? hot? warm?), humidity, exposure to direct sun lights, etc. The body farm is thus having bodies situated in different combination of the above mentioned elements as part of the research in order to nail the decomposition rate, which essentially help with identify the postmortem interval (the time between time of death and the time until the police got to the scene), and find out the story behind.

In the States there are several body farms, the most well-known one would be the one begun by Dr. William Bass in the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. This facility has dozens of students learning and working inside every year. The other one would be the FreeRanch ran by Texas State University. What makes it really special is that due to the maximized degree of sunlight the facility absorb, the bodies inside the facility usually are being mummified. Most importantly the heat even make the bodies inhospitable for bacterias and insects (flies).

So, what will one see in body farm other than a lot of bodies laying on the ground or in the testing elements?

Pretty much everything really happens after one’s death, but not usually being seen.

Decomposition of dead bodies go through stages. When a person just stopped his/her last heart beat, he will go through 7 stages (in general).

  1. Pallor mortis/ post mortem palness: usually happens right after death because of the lack of blood circulation through out the whole body. The red blood cells then will sink, and caused,
  2. Livor mortis: It can happen from twenty minutes to few hours after death, and continued for few hours. Basically, the red blood cells are pulled by the gravity, where the pressured point (contacting point with another object, be that may a table, a hand etc) will be discolored. The pattern of livor mortis can tell the M.E. about the position of death, and know if the body has been moved.
  3. Algor mortis: drop of body temperature. Theory has it that the body temperature will drop in a constant rate till it matches with the room temperature (the first hour will drop 2°C and thereafter 1°C per hour) By doing a simply mathematics calculation, the M.E. will be able to calculate the number of hours since the heart has stopped.
  4. Rigor mortis: Stiffness of muscles. It usually begins after about three hours, and will become soft again after 24 hours of death.
  5. Putrefaction: It is about the internal breaking down process of the proteins in a decomp body. Not long after the heart stopped, the bacteria in the body (e.g. digestion system) breakdown the cohesion between tissues and organs. Of course, this comes with a very unique odors.
  6. Decomposition: living organisms decomposed after death. Those wounds, or moist areas/ open areas (for example: eyes, mouth, ears) are usually the first place where the decomposition happens, as well as finding the eggs of flies and maggots. Studies found that areas with tattoos are usually decomposed in a slower rate than the areas without any. The gastric acid released in the process of decomposition would acidify the soil (if it is on the ground) at first, but then will nutritious the soil later on. Thus if police or law enforcement bodies found a weird area with heavy plantation out of nowhere, and a homicide happened around that area before, it could be the spot where the body was buried.
  7. Skeletonization: IT is the latest stage of decomposition, in which the soft tissues are already dried or decayed.

Other than situating the bodies in the body farms, researchers sometimes would use pig as a substitute of human body to do certain research, for example to study the bones found in a fire. It is because, pigs have similar gastric bacterias and about the same size as human. Lately, there was a study on using pigs to learn about bodies found in the ocean.

Further Information:

The Huffington Post. Dead Pigs Dumped Into The Ocean… For Science!

Mail Online: The chemistry of DEATH: Watch the gruesome chemical processes that will take place inside your body when you die

National Geographics on Body Farm

Stromberg, Joseph. October 28 2014. The science of human decay Inside the world’s largest body farm