A few weeks ago we were able to visit the “body farm,” at Texas State University — a place almost no one except researchers and law enforcement is able to see, because it’s one of very few places in the world that deliberately puts out human bodies to decompose in nature. Forensic Anthropologists observe decomposition in order to help law enforcement discern when and how someone may have died.
It’s surprising how little we know about human decomposition. “As a culture we are scared of death,” Dr. Daniel Wescott, Director of the Forensic Anthropology Center told us, “and we embalm bodies so we don’t see that process going on. But that process does go on and we need to understand how it works.”
Dr. Wescott told us there are currently 60 bodies placed outdoors for study. They can remain outside anywhere from 6 months to several years, depending on research goals. Some bodies are wrapped in tarps or placed in the trunk of a car. Some are buried in shallow graves. Most are out in the open, vulnerable to vultures and coyotes (interaction with wildlife is part of the research), and others are protected by long low cages. We were surprised to learn that as the bodies decompose, wildflowers crop up all around them due to the nutrient-rich fluid transferred to the soil.
When a body is picked up from the outdoor facility, it’s brought to a processing lab where any remaining tissue is removed. Dr. Wescott explained that the bones are “cooked” in large kettles. Smaller kitchen crockpots are used for the smallest bones of the hands and feet.
From the processing lab, the bones are meticulously catalogued, boxed, and stored. Anthropologists, orthopedists, and law enforcement can request access for research and data collection.
We were also able to speak with living donors about why they’ve chosen this particular method of donating their bodies to science, and how their family members feel about their decision.
This is a reporting trip we won’t soon forget. Listen to the full story and let us know what you think.