I talked with Dr. Daniel Wescott, director of the Texas State Forensic Anthropology Center, about how bodies decompose in the wild and what our bones say about us.
It wasn't just a smell; it was a force. With the first whiff, I thought, Camembert. But as the golf cart got closer, the smell became sweeter—noxiously sweet. You could call it the smell of death, but really it was the smell of what comes after: an obscene eruption of microbial life.
In the driver's seat was Dr. Daniel Wescott, director of the Texas State Forensic Anthropology Center. He was telling a story about his four-year-old daughter. She had asked him once, "So, when I die, will I get really big? Will I pop?"
"No," the cheerful 50-year-old had replied. "You don't pop. You sort of deflate. But first, you bloat.
"Like this body," he said.
He pointed to the corpse at our feet—one of the dozens of donor bodies exposed to the elements here in the forests and fields of Texas State University's 26-acre decomposition research facility. Most of the local kids who tell ghost stories about the place just call it "the body farm."
"When someone dies," the scientist explained, "the first thing that happens is autolysis. The body's cells build up with toxins; then they burst. The fluids cause skin slippage. It looks like a really bad sunburn on the top surface. The fluid itself provides a rich carbon source for bacteria. The body is full of bacteria, the gut especially, and that bacteria just starts feeding.
"Of course, when you have bacteria, you get gas, which causes bloating. The face, then the abdomen, and then the arms and legs will start to bloat. Flies are attracted, and they lay eggs. When they hatch, the larvae feed on the body. As the bloat ends, you'll start to get a purging of the fluid, so you'll get a black stain on the body. As the fluid starts to purge out, everything will start to collapse back in. The top tissue has been eaten away by animals and insects, so you'll eventually get a skeleton."
I gestured towards the bloated corpse before us. "Is that a woman?"
"Actually, it's a man."
The 11-day-old corpse was face down in a cage, quivering with maggots. The swollen abdomen, the positioning, and the glistening skin immediately brought to mind a Thanksgiving turkey. The enclosure was there to keep larger animals from carrying him away in pieces, though the mice could still get through.
"Every once and a while we get a rattlesnake inside one of the cages," Wescott mentioned. "They go in to feed on the mice; then they get so fat they can't get out."
The other bodies were face up. You could look into their eyes, or least into the holes where their eyes had been. What really stood out were the teeth—the whiteness of them against the dark, leathery, mask-like faces. Their mouths were open, and their lips were all drawn back. It was impossible to avoid seeing expressions there—and various states of incredulity: shock, embarrassment, awe.
The scientist waved me over to a pile of skeletal remains. The body had been placed there for vultures to eat. "Notice the feathers?" Wescott asked. "When the vultures are done, the bodies are completely articulated. This, right here, is all skin. The vultures don't eat skin. They just poke a hole through it and pull everything out."
"Does everyone decay the same?" I asked.
"It's basically the same. The only thing that might be different is if someone had a lot of chemotherapy. That can make a difference, because it affects the insects. We never use those bodies for vultures because the birds will get sick."
On the way out, we passed a skeleton sprawled out in a field. She had been there for a year and a half. The grass was dry and dead everywhere except under the bones, where it sprung up lush and green in the shape of a body.
"Decomposition releases a lot of nitrogen into the soil," the scientist noted. "Plants need it to grow."
The green patch was spangled with flowers: red, blue, and yellow.
Back at the main laboratory, I sat down with the forensic anthropologist as he carefully unpacked boxes of bones and laid them out on the table between us, eager to demonstrate the clues our bodies provide about how we live and die.
VICE: What kind work do you do here?
Dr. Daniel Wescott: Of course, there's the research we do at the decomp facility. A lot of that is about [establishing] time of death. We also analyze a lot of human remains for law enforcement or lawyers. Another big project is our work identifying the remains of migrants who died crossing the Texas/Mexico border, mainly in Brooks County. There's an education side too. We have an undergraduate and a graduate program, and we train law enforcement, medical examiners, and canine handlers.
What were some of the most memorable cases you've handled?
Well, one of the first cases that I worked on was a little nine-year-old girl in Kansas. She'd been missing for a little while. Supposedly, it was the first time she'd ever been allowed to go down the street by herself. And then, you know, they found her skull miles away in a big pile. They had discarded her body where farmers would discard their dead animals. So, they brought in five or ten of those big gallon bags full of bones and started laying them out on the table. We had to go through them and figure out which ones were hers and which ones were animals'.
Nineteen months old, and he had more fractures than most people experience in their entire lives.
How does this work affect you emotionally?
The children especially, yeah, it's just hard to believe that someone could do that. Unfortunately, you find that they've been abused for a long time. I worked on a case one time with a 19-month-old child. The father said he had to get up to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night when he slipped on the rug, and the baby's head hit the toilet. But when we started looking at it, the child had five different stages of healing going on. He had a crack above his wrist where he had twisted his arm. Nineteen months old, and he had more fractures than most people experience in their entire lives.
How do you deal with that?
You deal with it by knowing you're contributing to putting criminals away.
I've been collecting dreams from around the world for a project. I've noticed that death is a frequent theme. Is that something that shows up in your dreams?
I do dream about my work, but most of mine are about statistical analyses. I don't ever have dreams about dead people, nothing like that.
Does your work make you think about your own mortality?
I mean, I know I'm going to die, but I'm not necessarily worried about dying. It's like anything else—the more you work with it, the more comfortable you become with it. The times when I do is when we get a body that's my age and it's like, it could be me!
I suppose it could be any of us! How can you tell the age, by the way?
Well, from before birth to about 25 years of age, what we're really looking for is growth development, and after that we are looking at how the body is degenerating. From before birth to 25, you get really accurate age estimation because we all grow pretty much the same way, but when we're looking at degeneration of the skeleton, it's all about lifestyle.
What do you see when you look at these bones here?
It's amazing how much you can interpret about somebody's life from their skeletal remains. Some of the first remains I ever examined were from prehistoric individuals. One of the individuals smoked a pipe. You could see that in his teeth. You could tell a lot about their activity patterns, what kind of activities they did, if they were hard-working, what kinds of food they ate. You can see illnesses like syphilis.
Because it eats away at the bones?
How can you tell what activities people did?
You look at the cross-section of the bone. Take this thigh bone, for instance. You can think of it as a beam in a building. It has different forces on it, and it will adapt throughout its life to meet the demands that are placed on it. So, with this bone, you have a little curvature here [mid-shaft]. If you're a runner, you're doing a lot of anterior-posterior bending, and as a result, the bone will expand to shore it up a little bit. If you're doing something like soccer, you're doing a lot of twisting and turning, and the bone will get bigger in diameter all the way around.
How about this thigh bone?
This is the normal angle [of the socket], but if you look at this group, there's a lot of asymmetry in that twist. We found that it was only in [Native American] females. We're pretty sure that's it because they were sitting [on the ground with their legs off to one side] for long periods of time. They twist this leg out. Especially when you're growing, it causes that angle to become greater.
Does that change the way they walk?
They would probably walk [pigeon-toed]. You can see something similar [today] in little girls. You know W-sitting? My daughter does it all the time. I can't do it. But, they sit with their legs to either side so it looks like a W from above. When they get older, they'll walk pigeon-toed.
What other strains do modern people put on their bodies?
We carry a lot of excess weight. It plays a big role in your spinal column. You get a lot of fusion of the vertebrae. You see a lot of older people where the vertebrae are all fused together.
Do you notice other differences between us and our ancestors?
Well, the amazing thing is our stature is extremely plastic. It changes a lot—even if you just looked at your great-great-grandparents. Our skull is narrower, higher, and longer. We are on average taller, on average heavier, and that has affected other bones.
How do you interpret the change in skull proportions?
That's mostly associated with childhood. We have better nutrition, even starting prenatally. If you get a bacterial infection or some sort of sickness that lasts long enough to interrupt your growth patterns, then you don't grow. So antibiotics have really had an impact. The base of the skull, especially, grows really, really rapidly in those early ages, and so now it can grow to its full potential.
Does that affect the brain size and function as well?
I have no idea whether it affects the function or not. But it is associated with an increase in brain size. Brain size doesn't necessarily equate to intelligence. Females have a smaller brain size than males, but of course they're not less intelligent.
You get these different waves of beetles. Some are attracted to the maggots. Some are attracted to the drying flesh.
What do you think motivates the donors?
Often they wanted to donate their body to science, but a medical school rejects them. They won't take anybody who's too heavy, too tall, too short. You can't have donated organs. For us, that's not a problem. The living donors tend to be people from law enforcement, the medical field, and education. They see themselves as continuing their work into the future, continuing to help solve crimes, and continuing education. We also get a lot of living donors who don't want to be a burden on their families. It's an alternative form of burial.
All the costs are covered?
Right. We also do research here on vultures, and we have a lot of people who specifically state that they want to be used in vulture research.
I don't know why, [laughs] they just do. I think some of them think it would be interesting. Some of them think it's the greenest way you can go. Going back to nature.
It's a great story. Unfortunately, they don't get to tell it.
Right! But their family could.
Have you thought about what you want for yourself?
I'm a donor.
What kind of research would you like to be used in?
I wouldn't want to limit it. One of the big things we're focusing on understanding right now, though, is the necrobiome. With a dead body, there's this whole ecosystem going on. You've got microbes, bacteria, fungi, all different types of insects, fly and fly larva, beetles, and beetle larva. Some of the flies are landing because they're going to lay eggs on the body and the larva are going to feed on the body. Other flies are attracted because their larva are going to feed on the maggots. You get these different waves of beetles. Some are attracted to the maggots. Some are attracted to the drying flesh. You get birds that come that are interested in insects attracted to the body. Vultures are attracted to the tissue. We have a lot of foxes and coyotes come. We want to know how the ecosystem works. What attracts those flies? How do the microbacteria communities change through time?
What have you found so far?
Texas A&M researchers found that the bacteria are actually releasing chemicals that are attracting the flies. When they land, they are bringing in other bacteria. They also release peptides in their saliva that promote growth in some bacteria and kill off other bacteria. It's a very orchestrated thing. We know that temperature and humidity play a role—temperature is one of the driving factors of insect development. Once we understand all of that, we can narrow [our estimation of] time since death. A couple days to a week, it isn't hard to tell, but when you get beyond that, it starts to get a lot more difficult. I don't think we'll ever have total precision, but I do think we'll get to the point where it will be relatively simple to do a moderately accurate assessment. It really is an exciting time to be a forensic anthropologist.
Dr. Westcott and I shook hands and parted ways, but a few things stayed with me. On several occasions, as I looked through photographs of the corpses, the stench of it returned, briefly and faintly, like an olfactory hallucination. There was also a particular scene we had come across: a woman's skeleton lying in a field. All the adjacent vegetation was dead except that patch of green marking where her body had been. I think of the red, blue, and yellow blossoms that flourish there. I think of that strange feeling of foreboding that their beauty and their fragrance aroused. It was only after they disappeared from view that the sensation crystallized and became a question. What is the actual cost of a flower?
Follow Roc Morin's latest project collecting dreams from around the globe at World Dream Atlas.