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Forensic Benefits of a Body Farm Facility

by Jordan Arizmendi

Abody farm is often an indispensable tool for investigators. A body farm is a facility that focuses on the details of human decomposition. Such an essential tool allows forensic scientists to study the decomposition process in a controlled environment. In many cases, body farms are the only way to determine the time of death, identification, how long the individual has been dead, as well as identifying many more crucial pieces of evidence.

The main purpose of a body farm is to study and form a conception of the decomposition processes that occur in our bodies. The research is then provided to medical, legal, and educational institutions. 

Amy Rattenbury is a researcher at a body farm and also a senior lecturer in forensic science at Wrexham University in the U.K. She said, “The environment plays a significant part in the rates, stages and features of decomposition observed. Temperature, weather, oxygen, access by scavengers, clothing etc. all cause differences. A general rule is that exposed bodies will decompose faster than buried bodies which are again faster than those submerged in water, but it is not so simple and multiple factors must be considered.” 

The seven body farms in the U.S. are all at universities. Instead of body farms, researchers prefer to label such laboratories “decomposition research facilities” or “taphonomic research facilities.” 

A body farm is an outdoor site in which corpses are placed in a variety of different environments, such as dense woods, open fields, beaches, or shallow graves. The researchers then study how these factors affect the decomposition rates. In addition, by analyzing the environment, body farms can help investigators determine what happened to the body. 

For example, what might initially be considered to be knife marks, could turn out to be caused by scavengers. Body farm techniques can also reveal if a body died in that spot, or if it had been moved. The presence of certain insects on a body can also be very telling.

The corpses that are used on body farms have been donated. Donors can arrange that, after death, their bodies are used for scientific purposes. Some body farms, like the one that Amy Rattenbury works on, uses the bodies of mammals instead of humans.  

Oftentimes, investigators have nothing to work on. A body farm can provide essential clues to get an investigation going. For example, by calculating the precise time since death, also known as the post-mortem interval, investigators begin to establish a theory as to what happened and when. Once investigators have determined the time of death, they are able to start eliminating certain suspects.

All corpses undergo similar biological and similar phases. The intensification of each phase is determined by the environment surrounding it. For example, the second stage of decomposition is bloating because it is unable to release gas. Flies usually start laying eggs on the corpse during this phase. Larvae may start growing on the body at this phase as well. All of this morbid information helps investigators during death investigations.  


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