Facility works with donated corpses to learn more about human life

World Today

Facility works with donated corpses to learn more human life

There is a special facility in Colorado that studies the human body. The place is called the “Body Farm.” Scientists there seek to learn more about human life through the dead.

CGTN’s Hendrik Sybrandy reports.

It’s often said, and it’s true, that death is inevitable. But what happens when that moment finally arrives? Some people donate their bodies for scientific research.

“Yeah, that’s something I’ve thought about in the past,” said one Colorado man.

“Some people are just freaked out by that, but I’m gone,” remarked one woman.

“What difference does it make?”

Some of those donors end up at the Forensic Investigation Research Station (FIRS) near Grand Junction, Colorado. Here, just out of public view, lie some 50 human bodies, right out in the open.

“Mostly they’re laying on their back, in the nude, on the ground,” said Melissa Connor, FIRS director.

They’re objects of study as they slowly decompose.

“What we’re looking at is ways to tell how long people have been dead,” Connor said.

The six-year-old facility belongs to Colorado Mesa University and specializes in forensic anthropology or the study of human remains. It turns out the way bodies decompose can tell us a lot about when and even how people died. That’s key for investigators of crimes and missing persons. Time of death is obvious in many cases.

“But the longer somebody has been dead, the more difficult it is to estimate that post-mortem interval, but often the more critical, the more important it is,” Connor said.

These facilities, there are half a dozen of them, mostly in the U.S., are often called “body farms,” after a 1994 crime novel by the same name. It’s a term Connor isn’t entirely comfortable with.

“At all times if there’s one thing we want to do is show that we respect the people who gave us their bodies to study,” she insisted.

Gave their bodies for education, she said, or simply to end up in a scenic place like this. Security at FIRS is tight. A three-meter tall fence is topped with razor wire. There are surveillance cameras. Only staff and students are allowed inside.

“We’ve got a little petri dish with some liver for the maggot to feed on as it grows,” said Alex Smith inside the FIRS lab he manages. A lot of the work done here centers around insects, which arrive and disappear at various stages of decomposition and can tell a lot about how long a person has been dead. Climate also greatly affects the process. 

“What we’re finding out is how much we don’t know,” Connor said.

A map attached to a wall shows how the bodies are laid out and what year they arrived. Eventually, the skeletal remains are brought back into the lab. Connor has met many of the donors before they passed.

“You know I think it’s nice to know some of these folks ahead of time,” she said.

And she’s gotten used to the unusual aspects of her job, focusing on what current and future investigators and medical examiners can learn from her research. Like death, she’s suggested, that too is inevitable.