Unearthed human remains at archaeological site
Photo: via Getty Images

I Study Corpses in ‘Body Farms’ for a Living

"You see the body of someone you might run into at the supermarket transform into something pretty nasty."

This article originally appeared on VICE Netherlands.

Most of us don’t really want to think about death, and even fewer people are comfortable with what will happen with their body after they pass. But for forensic archeologist Hayley …¬, this is pretty much her daily bread and butter – she studies flesh decomposition, bacterial growth, how bones move around inside a grave and more.


Mickleburgh currently divides her time between the University of Amsterdam and the Forensic Anthropology Center at Texas State University. Though she’s also worked on non-simulated graves, she now specialises in researching simulated mass graves, also called “body farms”. The graves, made up of bodies voluntarily donated to science, are later dug up and analysed. The goal is to improve our understanding of how to excavate these often horrific crime scenes without destroying evidence for potential criminal proceedings. 

We spoke to Mickleburgh about what it's like to study this macabre topic as your profession, her views death and the connection she feels towards the bodies she examines.

VICE: How did you get into this field of work?
Hayley Mickleburgh:
I started off as a traditional archaeologist. There was a lot of science involved in this type of research, including forensics. As an archaeologist you want to know how someone was buried. As a forensic scientist, you investigate what actions by a potential murderer could have resulted in the corpse looking a certain way. 

I thought that was very interesting, so I started specialising in forensic archaeology. That's how I ended up in forensic taphonomy, the study of body decomposition. The process also reveals things about who was behind the body, how long ago they died and what happened around the time of their death. Ultimately, the goal is to try to reconstruct the actions that led to someone dying.


What kind of graves do you study?
I mainly focus on modern mass graves, specifically in conflict areas. At the moment, you can find mass graves in Ukraine, for example.

Hayley Mickleburgh – photo of two women carrying a body on a stretcher next to a dug up grave. Background: illustration of bones and skulls in tones of blue, red and maroon

One of the body farms where Mickleburgh works. Photo: Courtesy of Hayley Mickleburgh

What happens inside a mass grave?
In a mass grave, a lot of bodies are buried together, which also means they decompose together. We know these graves are very difficult to excavate because bodies move a bit while they decompose, so skeletons of different people can get mixed up. You need to disassemble the bones and sort them out again for each person, so you can identify everyone and hopefully give them back to the next of kin.

At the same time, you have to safeguard the evidence, which can very easily be destroyed during excavations. Digging up the soil is actually already a destructive process – it could contain evidence of physical violence or even of the perpetrators. On non-simulated graves, I look for evidence of who the victims were – identity cards, personal belongings, jewellery, wedding rings.

Your research project consists of studying bodies buried in a so-called “body farm” while they decompose. Why is that important?
With an experimental grave like that, we can control the initial situation. If you then keep track of exactly what happens to the bodies – for instance, how a corpse moves while it liquifies or the time insects take action – you can then properly document the decomposition process. That knowledge can then be applied to real situations.


Ideally, it’d be better to investigate multiple mass graves, so we could identify the effects of different environments. In Texas, where there’s another large body farm, I’ve now recreated a mass grave with the bodies of six donors for a pilot study. Next to that mass grave, there are three other graves with just one person in them, so that I can compare them with each other. The bodies were buried in May last year and I will dig them up again in November.

What are you looking for?
We pay attention to bacteria, since they’re a very important part of the process. Decomposition starts with the bacteria in your stomach and intestines. In the current project, we have six different people with their individual intestinal flora

At some point, their bacteria will start spreading throughout the grave and interact with the bacteria that were already in the soil before the burial. This kind of interaction is unique to each mass grave. Based on how this bacterial community develops, we want to create a method to deduce how long the grave has existed – this can be of great importance in a legal process.

We also investigate how you can track down this kind of grave. In the past, you could only rely on witness information. Now, we’re increasingly capable of finding them using multispectral drone images, which see bands of the light spectrum that are invisible to the naked eye. 


Finally, we also make accurate 3D models of the graves so we can practise how to best excavate them without destroying the evidence, with the help of VR glasses.

How does one actually donate their body to a project like yours?
It depends: In the Netherlands, when you donate your body to science, you can specify on your donor form that your body is available for decomposition research. In Texas, you can’t just donate your body to science in general, you need to indicate a specific research facility.

Seems like a tough decision.
People who donate their bodies to us have thought it through very carefully and really stand firm in their decision. They understand it's of great scientific importance. It’s not for everyone, of course. Many people want their bodies to remain at rest. It’s somehow reassuring to think their body will disappear. 

When you donate your body, it often stays in that facility "forever". If it is fully decomposed, for example, your bones will remain in the reference collection for skeletal material so they can be used for education purposes.

Who’s the typical donor?
At the Texas body farm, the average donor is a white male. Most of the time, the donors have been sick for a while, they have consciously thought about what they want to happen to their body after they pass. It’s also people who don’t have any religious qualms about donating their bodies. So we have a bias – ideally, you’d want to be able to research people of different backgrounds and ages.


Do you get to know the people whose bodies you examine?
No, I never have personal, direct contact with the next of kin. Normally I don't even know their names. The only thing I know is their medical background. But when they come in, you can recognise them as a person. Sometimes, they’re still dressed, sometimes they have tattoos – it does leave you feeling some type of way.

Recently, we discovered something unusual in the proteins of a donor, so we requested some extra information and a family member wrote us a long letter. She addressed the donor by her name, told us how she grew up, what she ate as a child, what her hobbies were – I suddenly had a complete picture of who she was. It eventually became clear she’d been using an experimental drug for her cancer treatment, which led to unusual values. The process was very emotional – it confirmed she was very eager to contribute to research.

Besides, I usually send reports to the donors’ next of kin to show what research their loved ones have contributed to. Relatives can also come to annual meetings and view the skeletons of their loved ones if they want.

Do you still remember the first time you examined a dead body?
Yes, it was during my archeology studies. We examined the bones in a lab, so the environment was quite impersonal. It’s not the same experience as viewing a fresh corpse, which is still recognisable as an individual. And then seeing that body decompose in real time is something completely different, too.


What’s that like?
It's not necessarily sad, it’s just very human. For example, you see a woman with painted nails who may have been someone's grandmother. From one moment to the next, she’ll turn from that old woman into a decomposing corpse – that can be very emotional. You see the corpse of someone you might bump into at the supermarket transform into something pretty nasty, with discolourations, odours, maggots. At some point, it doesn't look like a person anymore.

Isn’t that tough?
Actually, it takes away the fear of death a little bit.

The first time I saw the body of someone I loved, it completely changed my grieving process. I suddenly realised that person was no longer there, and in a way, I shouldn't feel sorry for them either.
Yes, that’s right. When my grandfather died, I was 18 and very sad to see his body – I didn't recognise him at all. But when my grandmother passed five years ago, I experienced it far more calmly. She looked beautiful and peaceful. It didn't feel unpleasant at all.

Will you donate your body to science?
Yes, I would like to. It does depend on how my relatives will feel about it, though. My husband hasn’t been a big fan of the idea, he said he’d like to be able to visit my grave. But recently, he told me he’d be OK with it after all. It's important to talk about this – be open, and accept what awaits you eventually. That way, death is far less scary, and you’ll also experience less stress about it.