Every body has a story.
Sometimes, though, that tale has been lost to time, the environment or circumstance, and it’s up to a specialized group of scientists to help dig up the truth. Enter forensic anthropologists, who analyze human remains to determine a person’s identity, along with the timing and manner of their death. One way these bone collectors get real-world training is at forensic anthropology research labs, better known as body farms.
A&E Real Crime spoke with Katie Zejdlik, a biological anthropologist and collections and facility curator at Western Carolina University’s Forensic Osteology Research Station (FOREST) in Cullowhee, North Carolina, to find out what happens to us after we die, why researching dead bodies is important and why you might find a kebab skewer in the lab among the calipers and microscopes.
What sort of work goes on at a body farm?
We’re studying human decomposition. Sometimes the facilities will try to recreate a case—for example, [if] a person was found in a car or a person was found in a toolbox in the bed of a truck, and then we see how a body would decompose in that context.
What are you trying to learn?
The ultimate goal is to learn the numerous things that can happen to bodies in various contexts so when our scientists need to testify in court, all these variables have been studied and it’s not just conjecture. That’s what really drives us—the data, the science and the reliability of testimony.
Our anthropologists are all skeletal biologists and we look at the way bone forms, the way it reacts, the way it is traumatized. Forensic anthropologists can sort of read a life history from a skeleton.
There are eight body farms in the United States. Are they all the same?
They are all in relatively different locations—urban, rural and forested. Texas is going to be hotter, drier, more open. Environments will have different wildlife, heat and moisture. The newest one in Northern Michigan has long cold winters and snow, and freezing and drying cycles.
What happens to us after death?
Your body starts fresh and then it’s going to bloat, it starts to eat itself, the various bacteria are going to break things down. Then the body will start to decay and, almost immediately, you’re going to have insects on the body.
While you’re decomposing from the inside, you’re being eaten from the outside. Within a couple weeks, the bloat will have gone down and then it’s really just skin and tissue, which will go away or dry out or animals will eat it. Insects are present in most cases, even indoors.
Where do the bodies at FOREST come from?
They’re usually individuals who have passed away and have not made previous arrangements but have vocalized to next of kin that this is what they want (to donate their body to the facility). A number of people know what they want and contact us ahead of time. We average about 20 a year. Since 2007, we’ve had 93.
Are they all donated?
It is law in North Carolina that you have to either donate yourself or by your legal next of kin. No unknown individuals have ever come through the facility.
How do the bodies get there?
Most often it’s either a mortuary-transport service or a funeral home [that] will bring the body to the facility.
How long does a body stay there?
We have two enclosures—one is 5,000 square feet, where we place the bodies on the surface of the ground and they’re there a year to a year and a half outside. By that time [they’re] fully skeletalized, and we bring them inside.
The second is 10,000 square feet, where we bury them. We give them five years because decomposition takes longer when you’re under ground. And then we bring them in, clean them up with dry toothbrushes and they are part of the collection indefinitely.
Regular toothbrushes? What other sorts of equipment do you work with?
Something as simple as a spreading caliper or a sliding caliper to measure the width of eye orbits or as advanced as digital microscopes.
Any machinery you wouldn’t expect at a typical research facility? A backhoe?
All the graves we hand-dig ourselves with shovels. We use mason trowels to excavate; bamboo picks, like a kabob skewer, to clean up around a skeleton; whisk brooms, small rakes.
Do the researchers work on the bodies and then provide the outcomes to law enforcement and crime-scene investigators? Or do the investigators themselves train at these farms?
A little bit of both. The researchers we have visiting are graduate students or professors. We want to assure our donors that the people we allow into the facility are there for a reason and not just to look. Death is really fascinating and decomposition is really fascinating, but that’s not why we’re here. These people have donated their bodies to contribute to science.
We do offer workshops for law-enforcement professionals. We want to help them do their jobs.
How many crimes have been solved based on the work there?
We have two homicides that have facility connections, but that is all I am able to share.
FOREST also trains police dogs?
They are learning how to scent decomposition. They’re looking for this suite of chemicals that are given off by a decomposing body. Some can be taught to sniff out bone.
Did you hear about the new Body Farm movie? Will you be dissecting it, heh, for errors?
Absolutely. In the same way that crime-scene investigators dissect CSI or Bones, or the way doctors dissect Grey’s Anatomy. You’re like, ‘No, that’s not a thing.’