Monday, February 11, 2008

Knoxville: The Body Farm

One of the Borders of UT's Body Farm
(Image from Jefferson Bass)

So I'm scrolling through the magic of the internet this morning and, what to my wondering eyes should appear? This article on the University of Tennessee - Knoxville's "Body Farm" forensic field lab and school (by the way, Damn Interesting is a great blog - worth a real look-see). That got me to thinking, golly, I should blog on that, you know, my usual link-list and so forth. I did a search to start the process, though, and whoa. . . tons of responses, like, tens of thousands. Well, I went through the top couple hundred of options and found these doozies - hope you enjoy (oh, and hats off to everyone, the volunteers who donate their bodies to science and the scientists themselves, who make this research facility - and all the good products thereof - possible).

CNN, October 31, 2000: "Pastoral Putrefaction Down on the Body Farm"
On three acres surrounded by razor-wire and a wooden fences near the University of Tennessee Medical Center, about 40 bodies rot away at any given time. They're stuffed into car trunks, left lying in the sun or shade, buried in shallow graves, covered with brush or submerged in ponds.
NPR, May 22, 2004: "Visiting Tennessee's 'Body Farm'"

WLTX (CBS), April 26, 2006: "The Body Farm"
And thanks to Dr. Bass, CSI teams also have access to a ground penetrating radar system. It can see bodies buried below concrete.

We can look through the concrete and tell which stage of decay the body is in," Bass says. "That's interesting and sophisticated type of research. "

It was that kind of research that was used at the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and the Pennsylvania field where Flight 93 crashed on September 11th.

"When you think of 9-11, that was an archaeological nightmare," says Dr. Murray Marks, an anthropologist. "Remains were not on the surface. There was a tremendous amount of debris and they were decomposing."
The Sevier County News: "Grave Talk From the Body Farm Guys: SCN Interviews Dr. Bill Bass, Jon Jefferson", April 17, 2003: "Dead man decomposing: An excerpt from Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, by Mary Roach."
The cadaver in the sweat pants is the newest arrival. He will be our poster man for the first stage of human decay, the "fresh" stage. The hallmark of fresh-stage decay is a process called autolysis, or self-digestion. Human cells use enzymes to cleave molecules, breaking compounds down into things they can use. While a person is alive, their cells keep these enzymes in check, preventing them from breaking down the cell's own walls. After death, the enzymes operate unchecked and begin eating through the cell structure, allowing the liquid inside to leak out.
Dr. Helen (blog), January 31, 2007: "Podcast on Forensic Science"

Utne Reader, May/June, 1999: "The Body Farm"
Once a year, Bass holds a memorial service for the people who donated their bodies to the Farm. This year I'm invited to attend. A cardboard box containing the remains of a randomly selected skeleton is laid on a large conference table in an anthropology department classroom. A simple white linen cloth covers the box. The gathering is small, just a few students and professors. Also present are James McSween and his son. McSween donated his wife's body to the Farm, something they discussed before she died. He has come here to find connection and comfort with the decision he made.

After the service is over, Bass huddles with the McSweens in a corner. His tone is that of a pastor after a Sunday service--calm, reassuring. He gestures toward the door, and father and son make their way down narrow halls and stairways to the skeleton-storage room in the basement. I follow at a respectful distance. There, several long tables and desks compete for space with rows of floor-to-ceiling shelving. On the shelves are some 2,000 cardboard boxes just like the one from the memorial service.

The three men work their way around a table and stop before a wall of boxes. Bass searches the labels. "Here she is," he says, and pulls down one of the boxes. He carefully removes the lid, reaches inside, and lifts out the skull. A small number is written on its base. The number matches the label on the box. Bass' tone is gentle, instructive, as if he were a gardener noting the details of a flower.

The Age, January 17, 2004: "Dead people do tell tales"

As Bass says in his new book: "We are organisms. We're conceived, we're born, we live, we die and we decay. But as we decay, we feed the world of the living: the plants, the bugs, the bacteria." When you kneel next to a rib-cage that has settled into the soil, and you can clearly see that bones are not people, and when your guide is a man who has walked so often in the valley of death, it is easy to feel comforted by that idea.
The Times, October 24, 2004: "A life in the day: Bill Bass"


Woody said...

I have seen several articles and one tv special on the body farm. Very interesting and creepy. I would hate to be down wind for a picnic.

ChristiS said...

This is fascinating! I wonder where in K-town it is located!

Kwitderber said...

An interesting Blog - Thanks for sharing it. I've just seen some of it on a BBC Documentary "Stephen Fry in America".
It does appear ghoulish but I suppose, inventive and necessary.

Anonymous said...

The "Body Farm" is located on the hill up behind the University of TN Medical Center. I worked as a nurse there back in the late 90's and parked probably several hundred feet down from it. It took several times of being down- wind before it dawned on me what what it was. I've always been tremendously fascinated with this concept. Please keep up the good work.