Criminal: All The Time In The World

Jun 2, 2017

This week's Criminal podcast takes us on a trip to explore the depths of human decomposition at a so-called body farm. Phoebe Judge tells us about her visit to the Forensic Anthropology Center at Texas State University.

 She got a chance to see in person something that very few of us ever do -- dead bodies left to decompose in nature.  

The Forensic Anthropology Center at Texas State University in San Marcos, Texas  is the largest so-called body farm in the country. Living donors decide that when they die, they want to give their body to the center, to be placed in a field and left to decompose.

Some bodies are clothed, some are not; some are placed in small cages or wrapped in tarp or buried in shallow graves, and others are left in the open and become part of the vulture experiment. The bodies are left out and studied and measured for six months to a couple years.

Their final exit is through a warehouse laboratory, where the bodies are cooked down, and have their flesh removed and bones bagged.

All this research has a very practical application: it helps investigators learn to find missing people. The anthropologists study the bodies' decomposition under different climates and environmental conditions so that the FBI can better identify bodies they actually find on search missions. Sometimes it's hard to tell how long a body that's found has been exposed. Today, there are a handful of body farms run by anthropology departments.

Doctor Daniel Westcott runs the laboratory in San Marcos.

"While you would think that we would know a lot about how bodies decompose, it actually turns out that we really know very little about what's going on," Westcott said.  "As a culture, in some ways we actually are kind of scared of death and we embalm bodies so that they don't decompose as fast, and we don't want to see that process going on. But that process does go on, and we need to be able to understand how it works."

The project might sound, gruesome, but all the participants are volunteer donors.  Phoebe Judge also interviewed living donors, who have signed paperwork committing their bodies to be used for this research.

Some people had been educators or had worked in law enforcement and wanted to support the research. Grady Early is a retired computer science professor who will donate his body to the farm in Texas.

"I think that everyone should be useful in life, and if you can be useful after death as well, so much the better. After all, which would you rather do - wind up in a box in the ground just wasting real estate?" Early said.

Some of the donors simply thought the farm sounded like a peaceful and natural way to go, but they've also never seen it for themselves.

You can hear more of the details about the research at body farms on this week's episode of Criminal