The elderly man is stooped over, carefully examining the decomposing body on the ground in the middle of a wooded area near the University of Tennessee. When he stands, he can see another body, and another, and another.
Is this the dumping ground for a despotic, third-world leader or the world's most prolific serial killer?
Neither. This is the Body Farm.
Technically, the proper name is the University of Tennessee Anthropological Research Facility but it has been known as the Body Farm since Dr. William M. Bass created the facility in 1981. Consisting of two and a half acres of wooded terrain surrounded by razor wire, the Body Farm always has several bodies at various stages of decomposition. Although the facility began by using unclaimed bodies of homeless men, the Farm now gets over 100 bodies a year donated. The facility has been contacted by many people who want to put the donation of their body in their wills.
What possible reason would there be to have bodies subjected to the indignity of decomposing in the woods?
The answer lies in the very distinguished career of Dr. Bass. He began his career at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC identifying Native American skeletons. Identifying bones led to a cattle-rustling case where he was asked to estimate how long a cow had been dead just from its skeleton. With no frame of reference, Bass suggested they kill a cow and study the decomposition. Although nobody took him up on this, the thought of this research was always in the back of his mind.
According to the lore surrounding the Body Farm, following his relocation to Tennessee, Bass was called in on a case of a body unearthed in 1971. He was asked to ascertain the age of skeletal remains. He estimated the skeleton had been in the ground for about a year. Dr. Bass was later horrified to discover that he was about 110 years off the mark.
Now, the Body Farm helps answer one of the most important questions in any murder investigation -- when was this person killed and how long has the body been at this location? Sometimes, the research will recreate the exact conditions of a body's discovery to estimate a time of death. More often, the experiments simply gather data that is applied to existing and future cases.
Dr. Bass, now in his 80s and no longer is doing research at the Body Farm, is still active lecturing and consulting. Along with his friend and co-author, Jon Jefferson, Bass has written six novels under the pen name Jefferson Bass. Currently, there are an additional four facilities doing similar research. The largest one consists of seven acres of cadavers in Texas.
If you are interested in donating your body to this research, contact the University of Tennessee. Who knows, for those armchair detectives out there, you could finally help solve a real murder!