What is a Body Farm?

Body Farm Research

Coming to a field near you – dead bodies, rotting among the cabbages. At least, that’s the image which first comes to mind when hearing the term ‘body farm’. While you can currently only find them in the US and Australia, the body farm debate in the UK is heating up. Here’s what you need to know about body farms, what a body farm actually does and whether we should make space for them here in the UK.

What is a body farm?

The term ‘body farm’ comes from Patricia Cornwell’s 1995 crime fiction novel, used to describe a research facility that studies the decomposition of bodies. Thanks to its literary beginnings, it has become a phrase that hints at the morbidity of the look of body farms: rotting corpses and various limbs strewn about in fields are what comes to mind. 

Body farms, really, are just outdoor laboratories. Using donated human bodies, the aim is to get a better understanding of the decomposition process. Monitoring the different processes of decomposition in various environments, the research findings can then further understanding in forensics.

Body farms are useful in figuring out new approaches and ways of determining the time and circumstances of a death. This is useful for solving murders, suspicious deaths, as well as our understanding of what happens to the human body after death. If it weren’t for body farms, we wouldn’t have spent hours of our lives dedicated to screaming at the TV while we watched the CSI: Miami team grapple with murder suspects.

What does a body farm do?

Human decay is a complex process – the environment someone died in effects the way a body decomposes. Changes in surrounding temperatures and conditions can create individual patterns of decomposition.

Ever watched a forensics drama on TV and wondered whether a body decomposes differently if it is locked inside a box or submerged in water? Would it matter if a body is clothed or naked, wrapped in a curtain? We know that it does matter, thanks to the research coming out of body farms in the US and around the world. Body farms have helped scientists to understand this complex process. Some scientists even go so far as to view a rotting corpse as a huge ecosystem, teeming with complex processes that flourish after death.

As well as the decomposition process, body farms can be used to teach dogs to track the scent of a dead body, how far gone into the decaying process DNA can be recovered, as well how the process affects facial features and fingerprints.

Calls for body farms in the UK

Until now, scientists in the UK have used pigs to try to understand the decomposition process. While pigs share physiological similarities with us humans, it is thought that there’s a limit to what a dead pig can tell us about our own modern lives. How does diabetes or cancer affect human decomposition, or smoking and drug use? Quite content with straw, pigs don’t usually share the luxuries of our 21st century lifestyles.

The topic of body farms has slowly gained traction in the UK, with Dr Anna Williams at the 2016 British Science Festival calling for a facility. By citing the fact that “much of what we know about human decomposition was discovered in US body farms,” the UK could do better. What Dr Anna Williams suggests is that the UK could be producing much more accurate and useful research if it were to open body farms, instead of gaining anecdotal evidence from pigs.

Planning a funeral with science in mind

One of the main reasons against creating body farms in the UK is that it’s quite a morbid thing to imagine in our lush countryside. Concerns in the UK range from how a body farm will impact property values to how much vermin they could attract. Ultimately, not everyone wants to imagine the sight of their loved one rotting, pulled apart by insects.

Yet, whether in a cushioned wooden box six feet under or out in an open field, decomposition is going to happen. We’re just slowly decaying bodies, waiting to be released into the wider environment, after all.

While body farms in the UK are still being debated, you can still contribute to science research, just in the more contained environs of a hospital – just be sure to plan ahead for your big, decomposing send off. There is no ‘body farm’ tick-box option but your body will be used by medical students and trainee surgeons, or you can donate organs and tissue to be used in operations.

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