New Body Farm To Study Cold Weather Decomposition

Since the early 1980s, forensic anthropology research centers have been crucial to our knowledge surrounding human death and decomposition and their contributions to the scientific field have allowed for decades of successful criminal investigations.

Leading the field is the original facility, the University of Tennessee at Knoxville’s Forensic Anthropology Research Center, better known by its original name, The Body Farm, a catch-all term that now applies to all similar research centers. Years ago, Skeleton Keys blogged about both the Body Farm and Dr. William Bass, the man who started the farm in 1980 with its first research subject arriving in May of 1981. Both law enforcement and the scientific community owe Dr. Bass a debt of gratitude for his efforts to dramatically expand an area of science that was just in its infancy.

Since the original body farm, a number of other American facilities have opened: the Forensic Osteology Research Center (FOREST) at Western Carolina University in Cullowhee, North Carolina; Texas State University-San Marcos’s Forensic Anthropology Center at Texas State (FACTS); the Center for Biological Field Studies at Sam Houston State University, near Houston; the Complex for Forensic Anthropology Research (CFAR) at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, Illinois; and the Forensic Investigation Research Station (FIRS) at Colorado Mesa University in Grand Junction, Colorado.

A quick scan of the existing body farms reveals a significant issue: they are overwhelmingly situated in the southern United States. Since environment and climate play a crucial role in human decomposition, this has a major impact on results and leaves a large gap in our knowledge base.

Enter the newest facility to open at Northern Michigan University in Marquette, Michigan. Recently, Michigan’s governor has granted the university 2.5 acres of land adjacent to the Marquette Branch Prison to open a facility that will focus on the yet-to-be-explored issues of freezing, thawing, and weathering of victims in northern climes. As important as human decomposition research is, it’s often difficult to find sites in a community to house what can often be an aromatic outdoor laboratory, and people are often uncomfortable knowing that research on human remains is going on nearby. What they may not realize is that many people donate their own bodies following death to these facilities specifically, knowing that they would be contributing to important research, and that all human remains are treated with respect and dignity.

Living in Canada myself, I see this research as being incredibly important and that it will only strengthen the legal and law enforcement community’s drive to find justice for victims of lethal crimes when they can’t speak for themselves. We wish them luck in their new venture.

Photo credit: Northern Michigan University

Blogging over the next little while is going to be somewhat sporadic for us. We’ll be back whenever we have news about our upcoming release BEFORE IT’S TOO LATE, but we need to buckle down and concentrate on writing its sequel, the third book in the FBI K-9s series. As a result, the blog will be a little quiet for the next 4 or 6 weeks, but we’ll be back full time as soon as the first draft is complete. See you soon!