Life on the Body Farm

Allen R Smith
3 min readApr 3, 2019

What really happens to our bodies after death?

When Mary Scarborough wrote the lyrics to “Old MacDonald Had a Farm” in 1923, she probably didn’t have a research facility in mind. She wouldn’t find cows, chickens or pigs at “The Body Farm” — just scores of rotting human bodies, covered in maggots.

The Body Farm (officially known as the University of Tennessee Forensic Anthropology Facility) was the brainchild of Dr. William Bass, a Forensic Anthropologist from Kansas who helps law enforcement agencies estimate how long a person has been dead. Determining the time of death is crucial in confirming alibis and establishing timelines for violent crimes.

After 11 years of watching human decomposition, Bass realized how little was known about what happens to the human body after death. So, he approached the University of Tennessee Medical Center and asked for a small plot of land where he could control what happens to a body, post-mortem.

Bass’s Body Farm drew the attention of readers in 1994 when popular crime novelist Patricia Cornwell featured it in her book of the same name. In her book, Cornwell describes a research facility that stages human corpses in various states of decay, in a variety of locations like a wooded area, the trunk of a car, under water or under a pile of leaves — all to determine how human bodies decay under varying circumstances.

According to Bass, two things occur when a person dies. At the time of death, digestive enzymes begin to feed on the body, “liquefying” the tissues. If flies have access to it, they lay eggs in the body, eventually becoming larvae that feast on the remaining tissues. By monitoring and noting how much time it takes for maggots to consume the body’s tissues, authorities can estimate how long a person has been dead. Scientists can also compare the types of flies that are indigenous to the area and the types that have invaded the body to determine if the body has been moved. “People will have alibis for certain periods”, says Bass. “If you can determine that the death happened at another time or location, it makes a big difference in the outcome of the court case”.

In addition to watching tissue decomposition, anthropologists look at the teeth of the victim to try to determine their age at the time of death. The skull…

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Allen R Smith

Allen Smith is an award-winning writer living in Oceanside, California and has published thousands of articles for print, the web and social media.