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Pastoral putrefaction down on the Body Farm

William Bass
William Bass started the Body Farm to study how bodies decompose  

KNOXVILLE, Tennessee (CNN) -- Nearly everything known about the science of human decomposition comes from one place -- forensic anthropologist William Bass' 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.

Students and UT anthropologists Richard Janz and his wife, Lee Meadows Janz, a former Bass student, take note of what insects come calling, and how long it takes them to do their work. Others test vital organs for protein degradation, amino-acid breakdown and levels of gas in the tissue. A project in partnership with the nearby Oak Ridge National Laboratory aims to create a calendar of decomposition by finding a substance that decays at a stable rate for comparison -- the half-life of death, so to speak.

And Bass, who retired last year from the university, still visits often, a genial paterfamilias whose busy lecture-circuit schedule cannot keep him away for long.

"I'm 72 and I'm sorry I'm getting so old because I have all these things I've got to do," said Bass, who started the farm with one body and a small plot of ground in the fall of 1971.

His work has been profiled in countless media outlets, from the Philadelphia Inquirer and the American Bar Association Journal to worldwide exposure through the Britain-based Reuters News Service and others. For most of the time, though, Body Farm workers toiled on in relative obscurity.

Known officially as the University of Tennessee Forensic Anthropology Facility, it has been immortalized as the Body Farm ever since mystery novelist Patricia Cornwell used it in a 1994 book.

Cornwell continues to visit the farm occasionally to gather forensic details for her popular crime novels.

But the farm's complete body of work is far more useful in helping to solve real crimes by helping law enforcement authorities and medical examiners to more accurately pinpoint time of death -- a critical detail in many cases.

"It was a need-to-know thing," said Bass, explaining the origins of the Body Farm.

For 11 years as a forensic anthropologist in Kansas, Bass had dealt with skeletal remains.

"In Kansas, you have twice as much land and half as many people. But in Tennessee, there are twice as many people and half as much land," he said, explaining that bodies left to the elements in Tennessee tended to be found before reaching the skeletal stage.

Once he joined the University of Tennessee faculty, "half of the first 10 cases I got were maggot-covered bodies," he remembered. "And people (detectives) don't ask you 'Who is that,' they ask 'How long have they been there?' "

At the time, "there was nothing much in the literature," Bass realized. "So I asked the dean if I could have a small piece of land to put bodies on. That was the beginning of what has been 29 years of trying to figure out what happens to people. I think all we've done is scratch the surface."

Body Farm discoveries have been called upon time and again to help solve crimes, including the deaths of a Mississippi family found moldering in their cabin in December 1993.

Researchers at work at the Body Farm  

"The maggots told you something, but the decay of the bodies told you something else," said Bass, explaining that there was a delay between the time of death and when flies found a way to enter the house and lay their eggs.

"Two things happen when a body decays," he said. "At death, enzymes in the digestive system, having no more nutrition, begin to eat on a person, and the tissues liquefy. You have putrefaction." Insect business also plays a big part as maggots take care of rotting flesh with often astonishing speed.

"Most of the characteristics used to determine length of time since death are determined by insect activity," said Bass. "Occasionally, there will be no flies in a house, and maybe it's two weeks since the time of death before flies finally find a way in, and then there are two different rates of decay."

In the Mississippi case, work on the Body Farm helped authorities to convict a relative in the deaths, which were determined to have taken place in mid-November, at least a month prior to when the victims were found.

"People will have alibis for certain time periods, and if you can determine death happened at another time, it makes a difference in the court case," said Bass.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation finds the Body Farm helpful, too.

Every February, agents descend on the Knoxville facility to dig for bodies that farm workers have prepared to simulate crime scenes.

"We have five of them down there for them," said Bass. "They excavate the burials and look for evidence that we put there."

Bodies come from a variety of sources -- unclaimed corpses from medical examiners' offices and outright donation. Some 300 people have willed their bodies to the facility, with more coming with each fresh wave of publicity.

"The university lawyers have a form they've made up," said Bass.

Because of this, the science of decomposition goes on. But Bass and his colleagues never forget that the subjects of their experiments were once living, breathing beings with dreams, hopes and fears.

"Once a year, we have a memorial service," Bass said Tuesday, just before leaving to join a German television crew for this year's service.

Is it always on Halloween?

"No," said Bass with a laugh. "That's just how it turned out." Writer Michele Dula Baum and CNN Correspondent Toria Tolley contributed to this report.

University of Tennessee at Knoxville
Patricia Cornwell Homepage

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