Brain and Body

Take a Video Tour of the World’s Largest Dead Body Farm

December 9, 2015 | Kelly Tatera

Closeup of human skull. The bone is white.
Photo credit: Steve Snodgrass/flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Yes, dead body farms are a thing, and they can help forensic scientists and law enforcement understand human decomposition.

The creepiest, smelliest, most maggot-infested farm of all: a dead body farm. You may not have been aware that these macabre farms even exist, but the outdoor forensic research laboratories aim to help workers in law enforcement and forensic science through the study of human decomposition.

Six body farms exist in the United States, and the University of Technology, Sydney began constructing the first body farm outside of the US in 2015. The largest body farm in America is operated by Texas State University at Freeman Ranch, and Vox’s Joseph Stromberg got the spine-chilling opportunity to take a tour.

He says the farm has about 50 donated bodies scattered all over the field and covered with metal cages to prevent vultures from getting to them. By observing the decomposing bodies, researchers are able to relay information to law enforcement officials, better preparing them to analyze bodies found under mysterious circumstances — perhaps murder cases that have gone undetected. Using the data from the body farm, researchers can also piece together skull and bone fragments to estimate age and ancestry, potentially determining whether a discovered body is that of a missing person.

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So what actually happens to a human body during the process of decomposition? Stromberg takes you through the stages in the video, and if you’re at all squeamish, it’s probably not a great idea to watch it — the content is graphic.

The first phase, or the body’s initial decay, occurs when the fluids inside of the body’s cells leak out, and bacteria start feeding immediately. As the bacteria proliferate, they convert the liquids and solids inside of the body into gases, leading to phase two: bloating. As the gases cause the body to bloat, the body also begins to marble, which happens when the hemoglobin molecules in the blood turn an orange or yellow color.

At the same time as the bloating and marbling, flies invite themselves in. They lay eggs in the body’s orifices, particularly on the face, in places like eye sockets, mouths, and noses. You can probably guess what happens next… maggots. Stromberg says they just eat away at the body, crawling everywhere, and that getting up close and taking photos was the most intense part of his experience at the body farm.

The third phase of body decomposition, or purge, occurs when the bloating dwindles down and lots of the body’s dark fluids leak out around it. Interestingly, this fluid is rich in nutrients, but it contains so much nitrogen that it initially kills off the plants around the body. But in just a year, it becomes especially fertile, as Stromberg explains.

This brings us to the last phase of decomposition, advanced decay, in which the nearby vegetation dies, and the body shrinks after being devoured by maggots. If the body’s in the sun, it will gradually dry up and mummify, but if it’s in the shade, then insects and bacteria can continue to feed on it until it’s just a skeleton.

In modern culture, we rarely see dead bodies aside from those featured in popular crime television shows and horror movies. Nowadays, most people die in hospitals or their own homes and then are sent to funeral homes to be injected with formaldehyde and covered with make-up. But as Stromberg ominously reminds us at the end of the video, underneath all of the make-up, this inevitable decomposition process will happen in every single one of us.

Aside from those who choose to be cremated, it’s simply part of the cycle of life and death within every ecosystem — upon death, nutrients will be harvested to create or sustain other life. So, really, there are two ways of viewing a dead body farm: either vile and macabre, or simply a part of life.

Stromberg’s video is intriguing but extremely graphic, so viewer discretion is advised:

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