It’s the perfect autumn day for a stroll through a body farm. The sky is blue. The breeze is soft. Wildflowers are blooming. Butterflies are flitting. A big buck leaps across a two-lane country road. I gasp. The deer nearly collides with the blue Mini Cooper driven by Dr. Daniel J. Wescott.
Wescott is the director of the Forensic Anthropology Center (FACTS) at Texas State University in San Marcos, Texas, and I am following him to the school’s 4,200-acre Freeman Ranch for a tour of its 26-acre forensics farm, commonly referred to as a body farm. And a dead buck isn’t the body I drove out here to see.
But before I see the cadavers I did come for, Dr. Wescott and I have to steer our cars down a caliche road, through a small herd of cattle, transfer to a four-wheel-drive golf cart, drive past the ranch managers’ houses and a hay barn. Five minutes later, we arrive at two fences with locked gates. Behind them is the body farm. We go in.
I sniff the air. I am expecting a putrid odor. I don’t smell a thing. Instead I find myself listening to the soft rustle of the scrub oak leaves in the breeze, until Wescott hands me a pair of CSI-style white booties.
“The seam goes toward the toe,” he says. “The purpose of the booties is so that you don’t drag stuff home, in case you accidentally step in something that you don’t want to.”
But the dirt path we follow seems neat and tidy until we stop beside a corpse. It resembles jerky made from a turkey the size of a human.
“As you can see, this one has been completely skeletonized,” says Wescott. Because of that, he explains, it’s caged so that animals can’t scatter its bones, and it will be picked up in a few days for its remains to be processed. That means the cadaver will be simmered down to the bones. Then the bones will be numbered, measured, catalogued and placed in a cardboard box.
We step to the other side of the trail, where the body parts aren’t caged, and Wescott points into the weeds and wildflowers. “Here’s a shoulder. Here’s hip. There’s a leg. … See where the stake is? That’s where the head would have originally started.” The head is now 10 yards from the stake—moved by vultures. FACTS researchers study vultures and corpses to determine how long it takes the bird to clean a body—four or five hours, usually—and how far it scatters the bones. This data helps law enforcement determine time of death.
Wescott and I move back to the path and take an easy right around some bushes, when he slows and notes that we’re about go into a section “with a little fresher ones.”
I stop suddenly. “Wow.” I stare at one of those fresher bodies.
“This is bloat,” Wescott says.
The body is huge. Its male private parts are blown up like a balloon.
Wescott points out the mounds of maggots working like ants in the mouth, nose, eyes and genitals. Flies, he explains, like to lay eggs in natural orifices.
“It looks like plastic,” I say. Plastic for the torso, turkey jerky for the limbs.
“You get what you call skin slippage,” he says. “You’re getting discoloration. You get what’s called marbling.”
It looks like exotic amber—a black, orange, and palomino-colored Buddha..
“It varies from individual to individual,” says Wescott.
As the autumn breeze rises and falls, I catch a faint whiff of the rotting bodies. It’s a vaguely sweet smell. Sweet and sour. Bittersweet?
“There is a smell,” says Wescott, “but it’s only during the bloat stage. What you’re smelling is the bacteria activity.”
My stare moves from the size and stench of the Buddha man to a tiny corpse with wiry blonde hair and dark roots. I can’t tell if it’s a child or small woman.
“It was a very young woman,” he says—23 years old, 80 pounds, died of a drug overdose. Her body was donated by her mother.
“How come she looks like she’s screaming?” I ask.
“Because the skin shrinks,” he answers.
I feel she needs to be comforted and protected. I don’t want to leave her. But there are 50 or more bodies strategically placed throughout the farm—some face up, others face down, some wrapped in tarps, some in clothes, others not and some buried.
Wescott leads me to a field of the buried ones.
My untrained eye can’t spot a single burial site. His eyes can. So can a drone fitted with a near infrared camera.
“When you look at a photograph in near infrared, the rich organic soil comes out as really dark and vegetation comes out as really white,” he says.
He points out dead grass that looks burned from what he calls purge fluid. “We call it a cadaver decomposition island. As you can imagine, it’s very organically rich soil, because it’s basically the intestines and all that stuff. …When [the body] first goes out, it has a lot of ammonia in it, so it kills off the grass. But as the bacteria starts to break down that ammonia into useable nitrogen, it actually acts like fertilizer and then you’ll get this really lush growth around it. So we can pick up these cadaver decomposition islands really well [on the camera].”
We round another corner, and I stop again. I can’t stop staring. In front of me is an upright body that’s bound—its knees to its chest, its head turned to one side, its mouth open. It looks like sculpture. Art. It’s mounted on a platform—which makes it look even more like a sculpture. It’s mounted because the researchers want to dry out the skin. “This allows the fluids to drop down,” Wescott explains.
FACTS students are mummifying the body to help archaeologists study burial practices in the Caribbean. Some archeologists think islanders bound the dead into a seated position, mummified their bodies and then buried them in small pits. So that’s exactly what the Freeman forensic farm researchers will do. Eventually, they’ll excavate the body to see if it resembles what archeologists found in the Caribbean.
I continue to stare at the seated woman. “That one has a voice,” I say. I want to stay and listen her.
Instead, Wescott tells me to put my booties in the trash.
I do, silently, but what I want to say and don’t is that if I can’t stay and listen to the sculpture woman and if I can’t stay and protect the young addicted woman, I want to at least keep my booties as a souvenir. But that defeats the purpose of wearing them—to make sure I don’t take anything home. Even so, I am taking something home—memories of a beautiful fall day strolling among the wildflowers, butterflies and decomposing bodies. I just hope I don’t hit a deer on the way back.