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Body Farm

Dr. Bill Bass has twice the energy of a man half his age and possesses a warm, welcoming demeanor—not what one might expect from someone whose life’s work is dedicated to the study of rotting corpses.

WORDS AND PHOTOS BY ALIX LAMBERT

 
The metal sign leaning against the tree trunk reads:

ANTHROPOLOGY RESEARCH FACILITY
STATE FORENSIC ANTHROPOLOGIST
FOR INFORMATION CALL:
DR. WILLIAM BASS


These simple words, followed by an office and a home phone number, usher one into the quiet landscape beyond it: a couple acres of nondescript, fenced-in land, and in the distance a shed, an abandoned trailer, a few trees, and some dirt paths. There are rows of green tarps covering bulky heaps on the ground. Yellow plastic sashes with CRIME SCENE written on them in black cordon off little areas here and there. On closer inspection, human skulls and assorted other bones are found strewn among the leaves, and soon it becomes clear that there are swarms of maggots doing their job on the remains. The human remains. The Anthropology Research Facility—or the Body Farm, as it has been nicknamed, much to the chagrin of its employees—is dedicated to the study of the rate of human decomposition. It’s a critical and still-emerging field of forensic science that helps to identify and lock up murderers and gives TV crime writers all their best material.

Dr. Bill Bass, the facility’s founder, has twice the energy of a man half his age and possesses a warm, welcoming demeanor—not what one might expect from someone whose life’s work is dedicated to the study of rotting corpses. But Bass is all charm and smiles. When I met with him on the facility’s grounds in Knoxville, Tennessee, surrounded on all sides by bodies in varying states of decay, he answered questions about how he came to open the research center with undisguised and fresh enthusiasm.


 
“I came [to the University of Tennessee] on June first of ’71 to take over a three-person department. It was still an undergraduate program then, and I was to build it into a graduate program. The medical examiner here knew me, and he asked if I would serve as a forensic anthropologist as well. I said, ‘Sure, I’d be happy to.’ Well, it wasn’t long before bodies started coming in. Half of the first ten cases that came in were covered with maggots. I didn’t know a thing about maggots, so I looked in the literature and there really wasn’t much in there. I thought, you know, if I am going to be talking to the police I’d better know what I’m talking about. So I went to the dean in the fall of ’71 and I said, ‘Dean, I need some land to put dead bodies on.’”


 
Just like that? What did he say?

“He didn’t say anything, he just picked up his phone book and found the person on campus that handles land. I started off with an old sow barn. But business picked up quickly and in 1980 I went back to the dean and I said, ‘Dean, I need some land closer in,’ and he said, ‘OK.’ So where we are now, the Body Farm itself, used to be the area where the university burned its trash. When the Environmental Protection Agency said, ‘You can’t have open burning,’ the university covered this area over with dirt. I reckon they thought, ‘Well, it’s been a dump all these years. We might as well give it to Bill Bass to put his dead bodies on.’ That’s how this thing really got started.”


 
Over the course of the past 28 years, Bass and his facility, in association with the University of Tennessee, have helped establish an entirely new way of understanding human identity. Really, when you begin to learn the true nature of what they do and why they do it, the macabre implications and sensational impact of dozens of dead bodies rotting in a field fall quickly away. At the Body Farm, they are in the business of giving people back their identities, of listening to what someone has to say even after their corporeal self has vanished and their mode of communication has shifted and is understood only by a select few. Most will never bother to learn this language, or even its underlying nature, and Bass has several insights into why this is.


 
“We are not a culture of death. Let’s say, for example, someone was killed and thrown out on the edge of the road. The police are called. They come and they hold up a sheet and everybody drives by looking and looking but they can’t see anything. Then the body gets put in a black disaster bag—again, no one can see what’s being done. The body bag goes to the morgue. Well, they don’t give tours of the morgue, so no one knows what goes on in a morgue. If anybody ever does see that individual again, it might be at the funeral—if they have an open coffin. But if they don’t, then the person is buried and nobody ever sees him or her.”


 
Bass continues, frustration in his voice. “There are so many things that happen after people die that we have closed off and essentially said, ‘You can’t look at that.’ But I think people wonder what goes on behind those closed doors. I don’t know why we cover it up. Of course, there are certain cases in which you don’t want to let everybody know what happened. I don’t think you ought to let key evidence out, but I don’t see any reason why we shouldn’t go into great depth about what generally goes on.”


 
Bass continues, frustration in his voice. “There are so many things that happen after people die that we have closed off and essentially said, ‘You can’t look at that.’ But I think people wonder what goes on behind those closed doors. I don’t know why we cover it up. Of course, there are certain cases in which you don’t want to let everybody know what happened. I don’t think you ought to let key evidence out, but I don’t see any reason why we shouldn’t go into great depth about what generally goes on.”


 
I talked with a number of others working at the facility, and they all share Bass’s commitment and fascination. Rebecca Wilson, assistant coordinator at the Forensic Anthropology Center, took care to explain the body-donation program and informed me that the university holds the single largest bone collection in the world. She sees to it that all donations are transported and placed and that paperwork is completed and the associated databases are maintained. She told me all of this among stacks and stacks of cardboard boxes, each containing a skeleton. Later, when we went outside, she pulled back a dark plastic covering to reveal the legs and buttocks of the body of a man who was fairly far along in the process of decomposition. She explained that the rich, beautiful colors on the man’s legs and feet are due to “marbling,” which is the breakdown of one’s circulatory system.


 
Then there’s Joanna Hughes, the first person ever to earn a bachelor’s degree in forensic art. Joanna sculpts what used to be a person’s face to his or her hollowed-out skull postmortem, which helps authorities aid in the identification of crime victims. Joanna can recall that as early as fourth grade, facial reconstruction intrigued her, noting that in seventh grade, when prodded by a teacher as to what she wanted to do when she grew up, she’d said confidently: “I want to put faces on skulls.”


 
Joanna was adopted at birth by an unnervingly perfect married couple—childhood sweethearts, schoolteachers, and churchgoers. Her adoptive parents soon took in another infant, a boy. Over the years, her brother grew into a pure demon, something Joanna had suspected him of being from the beginning. She recalls, “He was just a bad seed. He didn’t have a good bone in his body. Growing up, I saw it but nobody else did. He would do things or say things that weren’t normal. Like the way I guess Jeffrey Dahmer was not a normal kid, my brother was not a normal kid. He was into drugs probably by the time he was 10 or 11. He got arrested when he was 13. And then it just went downhill from there.”

At 28, her brother murdered their adoptive parents. “He bludgeoned and stabbed them,” Joanna says. “He made a weapon out of a pipe and a knife and then walked over to my parents’ house and waited until my dad went out to leave for work.” What ensued was a media circus involving a speedy trial, an overcurious public, and a death sentence. This was in late 2005. By 2006, her brother had committed suicide in prison.


 
It was not a difficult decision for Joanna to make when she, as her brother’s last remaining relative, received notice of his death. “When I got the call, I already knew that I would donate my brother’s body to the Body Farm. He did no good in life and if he’s just buried in a hole he won’t do any good in death. If he’s here he can do good for however long they have his bones. This is the best thing that he could possibly do.”

Bass, whose own father passed away when he was just two, frames death and work personally. At the Body Farm, amid diligent researchers, his musings rang especially bright: “I hate death. I’ve lost two wives to cancer. I just don’t like that scene at all—funerals and burials, anything like that. But I never see a forensic case as a dead body. I see it as a challenge to find out if I have enough knowledge to uncover who that individual is and what happened to them.”


If you want to see the Body Farm on film, which we know you do, please watch our in-depth documentary about it on this week's edition of Motherboard.