A Note from Knoxville

Newsday posted a fun article yesterday about the University of Tennessee’s Anthropology Research Facility. Of course, the word “fun” is totally relative when you’re talking about something like the “Body Farm” — a two-acre plot of land just across the river from UT’s main campus, where donated bodies decompose under the close scrutiny of forensic anthropologists.

Some of the 30 to 50 cadavers arriving at the Body Farm each year come courtesy of local medical examiners donating unclaimed bodies. But much more frequently, the arrivals are pre-arranged by consenting donors who have expressed an active interest in the facility’s research and who have completed a biological questionnaire detailing their medical histories. The facility has amassed hundreds of these completed questionnaires by its future donors.

During their talks at a conference held by the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing, [Dr. Richard] Jantz and fellow researcher Arpad Vass detailed the clues to be gleaned from nature’s disposal process — a process that begins about four minutes after death. Each stage includes its own march of the macabre. Flies begin laying their eggs in available crevices during the fresh stage, said Vass, a forensic scientist at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. The gaseous by-products of bacteria lead to bloating during the second stage. In the third, called active decay, the body’s soft tissue liquefies and insect holes proliferate. And in the fourth, or dry, stage, the body becomes little more than bones.

Nice, eh?

In a roundabout way, the Body Farm is the reason that I live in Knoxville. When I was researching doctoral programs, my wife’s ears perked up at the mention of UT. She had been interested for some time in forensic anthropology and forensic art and was well-acquainted with the program here. She’s since taken a bachelor’s degree from them and has developed into something of an asset for the department as well. She’s over there right now, in fact, reconstructing the face of a young girl who has gone unidentified since the early-1980s.

That type of work makes me glad for two things: that there are people out there willing to do it, and that they ain’t me.