The Body Farm

On the campus of the University of Tennessee lies a patch of ground unlike any in the world. The "Body Farm" is a place where human corpses are left to the elements, and every manner of decay is fully explored—for the sake of science and the cause of justice.

Doorway to death, the main gate of the Anthropology Research Facility—the “Body Farm”—consists of a wooden privacy fence inside a chainlink fence that’s topped with razor wire.

Affectionately referred to as the Body Farm, the facility was founded in 1981 by Dr. Bill Bass, a professor of anthropology at the university. Before the Body Farm was established, information on human decay was astonishingly inadequate, leaving criminal investigators poorly equipped for determining abandoned bodies’ time of death. On one occasion, Dr. Bass was asked to estimate the post-mortem interval of some human remains, and conventional methods indicated approximately one year given the moist flesh still clinging to the man’s bones. When other evidence later revealed that the body had been occupying its coffin since the Civil War, a flummoxed Dr. Bass took it upon himself to finally fill the forensic gap.

Security is a high priority at the Body Farm. Fences, padlocks, video surveillance cameras, and police patrols safeguard the world’s only human-decomposition research facility.

In the intervening years, many anthropology students at the University of Tennessee have been engrossed by the decay research at the Body Farm. A continuum of corpses occupy the facility thanks to unclaimed remains from the medical center, and persons who have donated their bodies to science. Owing to these selfless subjects, the stagnating field of forensic anthropology was rapidly revitalized.

As the lifeless subjects are interred into the grisly forest hideaway, each is assigned an anonymous identification number.

Some are situated to provide interesting decomposition vectors, while others are used to reconstruct specific circumstances for police investigations. At any given time, several dozen perished persons are scattered around the hillside within automobiles, cement vaults, suitcases, plastic bags, shallow graves, pools of water, or deposited directly upon the earth.

Except when clothing is necessary for a particular study, cadavers are disrobed, and frequently certain factors such as fire and chemicals are introduced to measure their effects. Grad students and professors return periodically to check on the subjects’ progress, with occasional visits from police officers or FBI agents undergoing training.