Down On The Body Farm

The air smells sickeningly sweet, with honeysuckle and death. The Body Farm--the only place in the world where corpses rot in the open air to advance human knowledge--sits on a wooded hillside an easy three-minute stroll from the University of Tennessee Medical Center in Knoxville. Not everyone comes here voluntarily. The cadaver under the honeysuckle, for instance, had been shot in the chest and abdomen after a drug deal gone wrong 10 days earlier. No one knows what happened to his headless neighbor 20 feet away--a woman found floating last summer in the Tennessee River. William Bass III, 73, the Body Farm's founder, doesn't find the scene ghoulish. "I see this as a scientific challenge," he says, as maggots work efficiently on 20 or so corpses decomposing in the early autumn sun. Then Bass uses a gloved hand to lift a rotting limb.

Ask any detective. Solving a crime--from a drug-cartel hit to a garden-variety murder--often depends upon pinpointing the time of death. To do so requires the empirical study of decomposing humans; this humble site in Tennessee is the world's foremost laboratory for doing just that. (A key character in Patricia Cornwell's best-selling novel "The Body Farm," pathologist Lyall Shade, was based loosely on Bass.) But Bass's life work is no fiction. Only 61 American anthropologists now apply their broad-ranging science to crime busting. Bass trained 19 of them. His graduates labor from the Smithsonian to the U.S. Army Central Identification Lab in Hawaii to major metropolitan morgues. Several have probed mass graves in Kosovo and Bosnia. One rebuilt Branch Davidian leader David Koresh's skull in 1993. Another uncovered remains from Mexican drug-cartel murders near Juarez late last year. Now the FBI has paid the Body Farm the ultimate compliment: the bureau sent 32 top agents here for the first time ever this year for a course in human decomposition. "There's just no substitute for actuality," says Quantico Special Agent Todd McCall.

Bill Bass thought exactly that when he got the idea for the Body Farm--a name coined by Knoxville cops in the 1980s, to the chagrin of some academics who still prefer to call it "the facility." Bass doesn't--he tries to remain resolutely comic in the face of death. He joined the anthropology faculty at UT in 1971. A few years later police asked his advice about the mysterious corpse from a disturbed grave nearby. Looking at the remains of pink flesh still clinging to the bones, Professor Bass estimated the time since death at one year. Oops. More research proved the dead man to be William Shy--a Confederate colonel embalmed and then entombed in an iron casket whose seal was finally broken by grave robbers. "I only missed it by 113 years," says Bass. "And every time I testify in court, the other side still brings that up."

Bass realized then just how squeamishness and religious beliefs about the body had impeded hard-eyed study of the process of human decay. He still regards it as preposterous that 90 percent of people studying to be law-enforcement agents have never seen a corpse, or that, until the Body Farm, entomologists knew far too little about the remarkable parade of insects after death: from blowfly to maggot to,carpet beetle. So Bass went to his dean with a matter-of-fact plan: "I said I wanted some land to put some dead bodies on," he said. "The dean didn't blink an eye." A few months later the first corpse arrived.

Over the years, more than 300 people have decayed on this leafy Tennessee hillside--some in car trunks, others under water, some under earth, some hung from scaffolds. Corpses of criminals whose relatives won't pay to bury them sometimes end up here. But more than 100 people, many of them academics and professionals, have signed up on their own for afterlife on the farm. "I'm an outdoors person, and it seems like the perfect place to go," says Roy Crawford, 49, an engineer who manages a mineral holding company in Kentucky. "The idea of being loaded full of chemicals and preserved for no good reason makes no sense to me." UT tries to keep a generally low profile for the shady glade behind the hospital. Chain link and fencing topped with razor wire surround the two-acre site, partly to keep fraternity brothers--or Halloween cultists--from their midnight rounds.

Even so, outsiders sometimes call the university switchboard, asking for the Body Farm's nonexistent phone number. "Nobody there needs a phone," Bass explains. "I told my secretary to tell people it's 1-800-I-AM-DEAD." Bass thinks some level of public awareness can foster understanding. But tours of the farm ended after two den mothers called to ask if they could bring their Cub Scouts through.

Meanwhile, original research at the farm continues. One pending goal: to produce an atlas for law enforcement that will provide what Murray Marks, a colleague of Bass's who led the FBI classes and now heads the Body Farm, calls "a gold standard" for decomposition--a page-by-page, color-by-color, insect-by-insect depiction of the process of human decay on a time and temperature line. Another: to bury multiple bodies under four pads of concrete of varying thicknesses so the FBI can test its latest ground-penetrating radar. A third: to pursue the biochemical breakthrough that will enable scientists to pinpoint time of death based on the level of once obscure gases, like putrescine and cadaverine.

Body Farm alumni have probed many of the world's trouble spots. William Rodriguez, chief deputy for special investigations with the U.S. Armed Forces Medical Examiner in Washington, D.C., led the U.S. medical team into Kosovo just after last year's armistice. It looked at 300 victims from two different regions and provided the War Crimes Tribunal with evidence for the initial indictments against Slobodan Milosevic. "Most of the remains were in an advanced state of decomposition," says Rodriguez, who earned his Ph.D. from UT in 1984 and remains in weekly contact with his mentor Bass. The Americans gave scientific backing to eyewitness accounts--times of death and proof of how ethnic Albanians had been killed. The team differentiated between damage done by animals or quick mass burial, on the one hand, and gunshot wounds, shrapnel wounds or rifle butts to the head, on the other. Without Bass and the accumulated research from the Body Farm, Rodriguez told NEWSWEEK, "I couldn't have answered well over 50 percent of those questions."

With all its current success, the Body Farm faces an even stronger future. The FBI will return with a second class next February. The State Department has just forwarded an inquiry from Turkish and Hungarian law enforcement, asking the Body Farm to take its decomposition show overseas for the first time. Marks says the main lesson for law officers focuses on evidence preservation. "The point is not to turn them into forensic anthropologists but to teach them how to get the evidence into the hands of specialists."

What's really needed, Bass and Marks argue, are more facilities like the Body Farm at different latitudes. "You decompose much more slowly in Minnesota than you do in Miami," says Bass. Tennessee data apply to a temperate belt around the globe, punctuated by the intense heat and humidity of July and August that can produce clean skeletons in less than two weeks. "It's ashes to ashes and dust to dust," says Marks. "It's exquisite how nature takes care of the process." It's not easy to be so philosophical about the unpleasant realities of this process. Until more institutions work up the enthusiasm, the world may just have to give sober thanks for the Body Farm it has already. ^