Tennessee Farm Is
Laboratory Of Human Flesh
By Terry Moseley
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (Reuters) - Professor William Bass spends most of his waking hours dedicated to a science that would make most people sick.
Walking around three acres of nondescript forested land near Knoxville, Tennessee, Bass is in his element as the energetic, flamboyant spokesman for the macabre yet invaluable science of studying the rotting of human flesh.
This is the outdoor laboratory of the University of Tennessee's Anthropology Research Facility -- better known as the Body Farm. At any time, at least 20 donated bodies in various stages of decomposition are scattered around the farm, some in the open, some in shallow graves, some stuffed in suitcases and some wrapped in cloth and submerged in water.
Looking like an episode from popular television series ``The X-Files,'' the farm is a morbid hybrid of serene woodland and violent crime scene. The silence is unsettling as you walk through snow-covered land littered with exposed cadavers and body bags with an occasional decaying limb peeking out.
But Bass has respect for those who inhabit his farm and for its serious purpose. Law enforcement and forensic medicine students from all over the country come to study the effects of different environments on the decay of bodies. The knowledge gained has been used around the world from solving murders to investigating war crimes in the former Yugoslavia.
``I'm really surprised that so many people are interested in the Body Farm,'' Bass said. ``This was set up because I needed to know what happened to bodies decaying in Tennessee. I never thought I would be famous.''
Bullet holes in the skulls of some inhabitants show they were the victims of violent crimes, while others appear to have died peacefully in their sleep. But the ultimate fate of every resident of the farm means the many faces of death are on equal standing. More than 200 corpses have rotted to skin and bones on the facility since it opened some 30 years ago.
Waiting List For Afterlife On The Fram
The university collects bodies from three main sources: the unclaimed dead, those who have donated their bodies to science and those who have specifically stated they want to spend their afterlife on the farm. There is even a waiting list.
Every corpse is tagged to identify it after decomposition, but the details of the bodies other than age, race, sex and cause of death are kept secret to protect their identity.
While the notion of bodies decomposing in a field may be disturbing, knowledge gleaned from the farm provides local, state and federal law enforcement agencies with a critical understanding of death and homicide.
``Most law enforcement officers have never seen a dead body,'' Bass said as he pointed to a decrepit shell of a man with a fresh layer of snow gently blanketing his sunken features. ``We're not a culture of death. Somebody dies and they put a sheet over the body. A mortician comes and hauls them off, never to be seen again except sometimes at a funeral.''
While it is said that ``dead men tell no tales,'' the soil and insects near a body speak volumes to criminal investigators about when a person died and how. The leaching of volatile fatty acids from a body into the ground holds critical clues even if the body itself is missing.
Bass and his students have placed bodies in all imaginable positions: in suitcases, car trunks, shallow graves and underwater -- all in the name of science.
The merits of the farm's research have been proved over the years. When the Justice Department investigated the deaths in the Waco standoff between the FBI and the Branch Davidian sect, Bass was called in. One of his former students, William Rodriguez, works for the Armed Forces Medical Examiner's Office and collects evidence of war crimes in the Balkans.
Bass, considered a pioneer in the field, is responsible for training and nurturing most of the forensic anthropologists practicing today.
``I'm proud of my kids, `` he said of his graduates. ''They're working at the Smithsonian, the Armed Forced Medical Examiner's Office ... my life's work is continued through them.''
Interest In Bodies Than Minds
His desire to learn more about the body and specifically bones developed after a stint in the U.S. Army during the Korean War. Although Bass studied psychology in college, he decided he was more interested in learning about the body than the mind and focused his attention on getting his Ph.D. in anthropology from the University of Pennsylvania in 1961.
< Reuters Photo From the plains of South Dakota to burial excavations in Azerbaijan, Iran, Bass has spent most of his summers digging for facts about the ever-changing physical properties of man.
He joined the University of Tennessee-Knoxville as head of the Anthropology Department in 1971 and continued his research only to discover that he needed a place to study bodies as they decomposed into skeletons. After what can only be described as an ``interesting'' conversation with university officials, he was given a former dump site -- now the Body Farm.
Although the work there is scientific, the nature of the facility inspires intrigue, especially among curiosity seekers and teenagers. To stave off theft and desecration, an outer chain link fence and an inner wooden ``modesty'' fence with small ``No Trespassing'' signs surround the facility.
``We don't fear the dead getting out,'' he said with a twinkle in his eye. ``It's the living we're concerned about.'' Several attempts to sneak in have resulted in serious injuries to thrill-seekers who jumped the fence only to be sliced by deadly loops of razor wire around the perimeter.
As Bass opens the gates, he jokes that winter is the perfect time to visit. ``It's cold so the smell won't knock you out,'' he said, adding that the living can smell the dead only from less than 30 yards away. But what a smell it is. The odor of death is reminiscent of freshly tilled earth mixed with the sickeningly sweet and acrid smell of decay.
``What we have here are bodies in various states of disrepair,'' he said -- a phrase he often uses to describe the skeletal remains of fossilizing and rotting cadavers.
'Mother Nature's Little Helpers'
Gingerly lifting a blue tarp, he points to the steaming, oozing remains of a body and identifies, in his words, ``Mother Nature's little helpers'' -- maggot masses. ``During the hot, humid months, maggots can reduce a fresh body to bones in less than two weeks,'' he said with awe and respect.
About three or four times a year, after the maggots have done their job and consumed the soft flesh, graduate students from the anthropology department have ``cleanup parties.''
Wearing protective clothing including plastic gloves and boots, they place the fragile human remains in large plastic bags with ``biohazard'' emblazoned on the side. The bags are then taken to a small, nondescript building near the university's football stadium for processing.
The lab is full of buzzing flies and the fetid smell of death as black bags of body parts are left in a storage room waiting to be cleaned. A large handwritten sign on the wall says: ``Do not place anything with flesh in this freezer.''
The anthropology department shares its frozen resources with zoology students so the remains of a dead squirrel may share a freezer with a human limb. Given the department's limited resources, Bass had to be creative in finding a place to store the former residents of the farm.
Wearing goggles and special gloves, graduate students deposit the remains unceremoniously into a large stainless steel kettle once used by a cafeteria to make soups and stews.
``Sometimes we have to cut them apart to fit in here,'' Michelle Hamilton, a graduate assistant in the forensic anthropology department who helps clean the skeletons, said with a smirk. With the casualness of doing laundry, she runs warm water into the kettle and adds body parts, detergent and bleach to allow the enzymes and nature to take their course.
After the bones have been steamed cleaned, they go onto a metal counter where remaining flesh is delicately removed using an old toothbrush, scissors and old-fashioned elbow grease. For small parts such as the skull, hands and feet, the bones are simmered in small electric pots labeled, appropriately enough, Skull Pot #1 and Body Parts #2.
The glass tops reveal the gruesome contents, including one of the metal tags used to identify the body. From there, bones are dried and meticulously labeled so that if they are ever separated they can be reassembled without confusion.
Regardless of the size of the adult body in life, almost every skeleton can be neatly tucked into a box measuring 3 feet by 1 foot by 1 foot. The final resting place of farm residents is a small room in the Anthropology Department.
On large metal racks lining the cinder-block walls are rows upon rows of boxes containing the bones of more than 200 donated bodies. Only the outside labels on the boxes hint at what is inside: white man, 45 years old, heart attack.
Bass, who retired from the university in 1999 but remains a professor emeritus and head of the Forensic Anthropology Center, believes research on the dead is all about recycling.
His curious occupation begs the obvious question: What are his own plans for the afterlife? Bass smiles as he gives his response. ``I haven't discussed it with my wife, but I think it's a terrible thing to waste a good skeleton.''


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