Body Farms; An Overview of Their Purpose in Forensic Science

Body Farms in a Nutshell

The term "body farm" refers to a type of outdoor research facility in which human remains are left to decompose in a variety of environmental conditions naturally. While some individuals may find the concept of a body farm unsettling, these facilities are very useful for forensic science research.

Body farms facilitate the hard (or sometimes outright impossible) research on the various stages of human decomposition, aiming to gain a deeper understanding of how the process can differ under various conditions. This new-found knowledge can then be utilized to assist forensic investigators in determining the time and cause of death and potentially even more information.

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What can be Gleaned from Forensic Body Farms?

One of their primary advantages is the controlled environment that body farms provide for forensic science researchers to study the decomposition process. The researchers can observe how various factors affect the rate and pattern of decomposition by placing bodies in various conditions, such as in an area full of trees or with direct sunlight. Subsequently, this new information can be used in real-world scenarios, assisting investigators in estimating the time of death with greater precision and possibly locating suspects.

Body farm researchers can also study how insects interact with decaying cadavers in body farms' controlled environment. Since different kinds of insects are drawn to a body at different stages of decomposition, this allows the informed speculation/determination of the time of death. This is essentially a sub-division of Forensic science, which is called Forensic entomology: the study of insects in relation to criminal investigations. Therefore, utilizing body farms can make forensic entomology more scientifically sound by providing an almost fully controlled environment for scientists to experiment and draw conclusions regarding insect activity.

Despite their numerous advantages, body farms have some drawbacks. One of the main limitations is that the findings of body farm research may not always be directly applicable to actual real-life crime scene situations. For instance, the circumstances at a body ranch may not completely emulate the circumstances at the location of a crime, and there might be additional elements impacting everything that could influence the rate and example of deterioration (e.g., the presence of scavengers).

Another major issue can be the ethical concerns regarding the utilization of human corpses in this manner, and the utilization of donated bodies for research purposes can be a contentious topic. The fact that they need a lot of space and resources to run is another drawback of body farms. Researchers in some areas may find it challenging as a result to gain access to these facilities and carry out their research.

How can Ethical Issues be Circumvented?

It is essential to approach the use of human remains for scientific research with considerations of ethics, respect, and sensitivity. One of the most important ethical concerns is obtaining consent from donors or their families before using their bodies for research. This consent must be completely voluntary and gotten ahead of time. The difficulty of obtaining consent is exacerbated by the fact that the donors will no longer be alive during the study.

One more issue is the privacy of the contributors and their families. It is essential to guarantee that the donors' identities are kept confidential and that their bodies are handled with the utmost respect and dignity. Confidentiality must be maintained throughout the body donation procedure, including the storage, use, and eventual disposal of the remains. Moreover, there is a realistic chance of desensitization of the people who work and maintain the body farm. This risk requires careful management through supervision and the right training.

By employing extensive training, it is much more likely that the research is carried out ethically and in accordance with the requirements stipulated by local laws and regulations. It is of utmost importance that strict guidelines and protocols must be established and followed.

Human Corpse

Image Credit: Jan H Andersen/Shutterstock.com

Closing Thoughts

Besides the aforementioned hurdles, body farms are still a tremendous benefit for forensic science, and it would be even more helpful if they were easily accessible to more scientists because there is still a lot of knowledge to be discovered in this scientific domain. The use of body farms to study the effects of various types of injuries/trauma on the decomposition process is one area of future research that could benefit from the extensive study.

For instance, researchers could look into how gunshot wounds or blunt force trauma affect the decomposition process and whether or not the presence of such injuries could affect the accuracy of estimates of the time of death. A deeper understanding will also be beneficial when using analogs of human bodies.

The golden standard is the corpses of pigs, as shown by the current research, but more research is required to elucidate how the findings on the analogs correspond to actual human bodies and if a greater variety of analogs can be introduced.

Sources:

  • Roger W. Byard Body farms – characteristics and contributions 2017 Forensic Sci Med Pathol  13:473–474 DOI:10.1007/s12024-017-9912-3.
  • Varlet et al. 2020 Revolution in death sciences: body farms and taphonomics blooming. A review investigating the advantages, ethical and legalaspects in a Swiss context International Journal of Legal Medicine 134:1875–1895 DOI: 10.1007/s00414-020-02272-6
  • Matuszewski et al. 2020 Pigs vs people: the use of pigs as analogues for humans in forensic entomology and taphonomy research Int J Legal Med. 2020; 134(2): 793–810 DOI: 10.1007/s00414-019-02074-5

Further Reading

Last Updated: May 17, 2023

Dr. Georgios Christofidis

Written by

Dr. Georgios Christofidis

Georgios is an experienced researcher who started as a freelance science editor during the last stages of his Ph.D. studies. He has a B.Sc. in Chemistry from the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki and an M.Sc. in Forensic Science from the University of Amsterdam. Currently, he is nearing the end of his Ph.D. project in Liverpool John Moores University, which is about latent fingermark development on fired cartridge cases.

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