Where the science of decay is one man's passion
Just outside Knoxville, Tennessee, a university-issue white Ford pickup truck cuts diagonally across the nearly empty parking lot behind the University Medical Center and pulls to a stop in front of a chain-link gate. A car door opens, and out bounds Dr. William Bass, a burly man, solid and fit for his 71 years. He has close-cropped gray hair, oversized glasses, gray tweed jacket, white button-down shirt. On the ring that holds the keys to his truck, house, and office are the keys to the University of Tennessee Anthropology Research Facility, known to the locals by a more familiar name: the Body Farm.
Cars pull into other spots in the lot. Doctors, nurses, and medical students walk briskly to morning classes without so much as a glance toward the fence that rings the Farm. It's two fences, really: The outside fence is chain-link, six feet high, with $2,000 worth of fresh razor wire tangled along its top. That fence is backed by a wooden "modesty" fence similar to one that might separate your backyard from your neighbor's—except that this barrier hides three acres unlike any others in the world.
Bass, a forensic anthropologist by training, began his career in the classroom, but over time began to help police departments across the United States identify bodies. He learned a lot from examining bodies at crime scenes, and setting up an outdoor laboratory where he could conduct experiments on human bodies left to weather the elements was a natural extension of his work. Eventually he'd be able to tell law enforcement agencies more about the bodies they discovered. Thus, in 1971, the Body Farm was born.
The gates swing open, and we walk into a clearing the size of a backyard, ringed by thick underbrush and a stand of vine-covered trees. Crossing the threshold snaps the senses to a state of full awareness; it's like passing through an invisible wall that keeps two worlds apart. The smell is noticeable, but it's more stale than wretched. I see an old mailbox, a few cardboard boxes, a couple of old rusting cars, a ladder, and some shovels leaning up against the fence. And the dead bodies. About a dozen are in plain view, stretched out on the ground. Most are covered by thick black plastic tarps or white cotton bedsheets. Each body wears two bright orange plastic tags, strapped to arm and ankle. Next to each body is a small metal sign that, like the orange tags, identifies the body by code. "WM 43 2/97" translates as "white male, 43 years old, the second body placed at the Farm in 1997." Names and personal histories are kept in a locked file cabinet in Bass' office.
Many people stipulate in their wills that their bodies be donated to science. Few of them are likely to have in mind Bass' field of study, a little-discussed area of forensic science. The bodies are first used by forensic science students; eventually, the bones are turned over to the anthropology department for further study. In this way, the Body Farm makes scientific sense, just like the organ donor checkoff on your driver's license. It's the intersection of science and emotion that's a bit hard to get around.
The human body goes through a number of changes when it dies. Scientists have a pretty good handle on what happens within the first few hours: The heart stops, the brain ceases functioning, fluids leak out, stiffness sets in, and so on. At this point, a trained professional can make a pretty good guess about how long a person has been dead. It's in the days and weeks beyond death that forensic scientists still struggle to understand the process of human decay. That's where the bugs come in.
"One of the best ways of telling how long a body has been dead, up until about two and a half weeks, is to look at the insects," says Bass. "The blowflies arrive first, stay for a while, then lay their eggs, which hatch into maggots. The maggots then metamorphose from the worm to the fly stage, and the process starts all over again. This cycle usually takes 18 to 21 days." A trained eye can look at the bugs in a body and tell how long a person's been dead by the stage of metamorphosis.
Most of the bodies on the Farm at the time of my visit were in advanced stages of decay: skin transformed into a leathery sheath, bones exposed. But it's the recent arrivals, skin still pink and ripe, that give you pause.
As you might imagine, says Bass, "not everyone wants to do this." In fact, Bass doesn't want to do it much longer himself. He soon plans to retire from his teaching post and from his work with the FBI and local law enforcement. Until then, he has a pool of graduate students who are eager to tap his forensic knowledge. His method is simple, Bass explains: Give each of the students one skeleton per week and have them tell him "who the person was—gender, age, everything." The bones never lie.
Once a year, Bass holds a memorial service for the people who donated their bodies to the Farm. This year I'm invited to attend. A cardboard box containing the remains of a randomly selected skeleton is laid on a large conference table in an anthropology department classroom. A simple white linen cloth covers the box. The gathering is small, just a few students and professors. Also present are James McSween and his son. McSween donated his wife's body to the Farm, something they discussed before she died. He has come here to find connection and comfort with the decision he made.
After the service is over, Bass huddles with the McSweens in a corner. His tone is that of a pastor after a Sunday service—calm, reassuring. He gestures toward the door, and father and son make their way down narrow halls and stairways to the skeleton-storage room in the basement. I follow at a respectful distance. There, several long tables and desks compete for space with rows of floor-to-ceiling shelving. On the shelves are some 2,000 cardboard boxes just like the one from the memorial service.
The three men work their way around a table and stop before a wall of boxes. Bass searches the labels. "Here she is," he says, and pulls down one of the boxes. He carefully removes the lid, reaches inside, and lifts out the skull. A small number is written on its base. The number matches the label on the box. Bass' tone is gentle, instructive, as if he were a gardener noting the details of a flower.
"Oh, I see she had open-heart surgery," he says, and lifts out the rib cage. The bones are taupe and smooth; three strands of bright silver wire join the two halves. "And this one," he continues. "It looks like she nicked this leg bone at some point." The son stands rigid, a look of confusion clouding his face. McSween is no longer listening to Bass' impromptu lecture. He tentatively puts his hand in the box and withdraws an arm bone. He turns it slowly in his hand. A subtle wave of emotion seems to wash over him. He replaces the bone. Bass pauses, then puts his hand gently on McSween's shoulder. "You can come visit her anytime you'd like." He replaces the lid, then the box.
Bass never dreams about his work or his guests at the Farm, but he has thought a lot about God and the nature of our being. "The thing that makes us different from most animals," he says, "is that we have a soul; what makes us human is the spirit." But this man, who understands the scientific process of death and dying, also has personal knowledge of death's emotional toll.
"I will have to admit that with the death of my second wife," he says softly, "I have seriously wondered whether there really is a God. She was a very, very nice lady. She died of lung cancer. Never smoked a day in her life. We did everything science could do and did not have what it took to overcome what happened. I am religious. I do go to church. But if you ask me, am I 100 percent sure there's a God, I would have to say I don't know." He looks down at his hands, rubs them together twice, then lays them flat on the desk in front of him.
The traditional trappings of death don't appeal to him. "I don't like mourning," he says. "I don't like funerals." He won't be cremated; the idea doesn't fit well with a life that's been devoted to anthropology, which raises a question: Is there a place waiting for him at the Farm? "You know, it's funny," he says. "I talked it over with my first wife, and we decided that I'd go to the Farm after I died. But she died first. And so I discussed it with my second wife, who was against it. But then she died unexpectedly as well. So now I'm remarried, just a year now, and I haven't broached the idea with her." He ponders the thought in the manner of a man who has already made up his mind. "I have to be honest," he says. "I'm leaning toward it.”
From The Oxford American (Jan.-Feb. 1999). Subscriptions: $19.95/yr. (6 issues) from Box 1156, Oxford, MS 38655.