Thursday, August 29, 2019

Body Farms? By E. B. Davis

It’s official—I’m an old lady. At my age, I was surprised and embarrassed not only by my feelings of shock, ignorance, and naiveté, but also at my perspective on the subject of body farms. How did this come about?

The subject came up while attending a ladies’ church circle luncheon to honor a member leaving Hatteras Island to move to Nashville. Our discussion focused on Tennessee attractions, one of which turned out to be the body farm at the University of Tennessee. Of course, I thought the ladies were talking about a fictional place. My confusion comes honestly. William Bass, the creator of UT’s body farm, teamed with Jon Jefferson to write many murder mysteries under the name Jefferson Bass, based at the body farm. Thus, my confusion.

As a mystery writer, one who often depends on forensic science to help solve my fictional cases, I was aghast not to know the reality of such a place. The body farm at the University of Tennessee was created after Professor Bass made a mistake identifying the age of a body. As a result, the body farm was created on acreage near the university where dead humans’ bodies are left to the elements and their decomposition is studied.

I should be in favor of such a scientific endeavor. I should applaud their efforts to give forensic students the opportunity to see in the flesh, or not, each stage of the process. They experiment, leaving some bodies exposed, caging some so animals can’t interfere, hiding some in car trunks or water tanks—to emulate possible homicide victims’ fates. But the fact is—I can’t.

The process isn’t rocket science. There are factors that speed up or slow down the process. But the process is the same no matter what the manner of death. There are extenuating circumstances, such as mummified bodies, but then we know all about some of these situations. How many times does it take to replicate the process in the advancement of science? Ten, one hundred? The university has had over one-thousand bodies and over four thousand more in queue by donors who have signed up to be studied after death. And this body farm isn’t the only one. They are springing up all over the country.   

What is my problem? Although I want advancement in the forensic sciences, I also want bodies studied for the advancement of medical science—health for the living. Although many people donate their bodies for this cause, there is usually a shortfall. Yes, we want everyone’s murder to be solved, but I’d rather the kid with cancer live a long life. Why can’t the real murder victims’ bodies be used to study murder?

This summer, I read an article about an increase in tourists’ deaths at the Grand Canyon—due to backing up too close to the edge while taking selfies (just Google “selfie deaths at the Grand Canyon”). Yep, got to be a Darwin Award for these deaths. But it also got me thinking about our self-absorbed culture. Isn’t donating your body so others can watch it decay the ultimate selfie? Scoff all you want. Morbid fascination is a sick reality. (Excuse my snide attitude of turning science into entertainment in the form of fiction set at the facilities by the director, bless his heart.)

It also makes me think much more favorably on cozy mysteries in which the graphics are omitted. A premise of cozies is the sanctity of life and the dignity of death. Where is the dignity in death at body farms? To each his own, I guess, but I’ll stick with my grandmother’s comments on viewing dead bodies. She said, “If you give me a viewing, I’ll come back and haunt you.” We did not give her a viewing. Me—I’m getting cremated. End of story.  


Margaret S. Hamilton said...

interesting perspective on body farms. I understand the need for them in different climates and soils.

KM Rockwood said...

My thoughts about a body after death is that the "person" is gone; that's just the discarded shell. I do understand that people whose religious belief is that the body will rise are concerned about treatment of a body, but I don't share that belief. As far as I'm concerned, if after death my body will help someone, great. Otherwise, cremation is probably the best bet.

Grace Topping said...

Intriguing subject. I'm with you about cremation. I read a book about a body farm and body decomposition, etc., and then immediately decided to be cremated. The thing I found surprising is the number of people who left their bodies to science in the hope it could help in medical studies only for the families to discover the body had been used at a body farm. To me, it is a modern-day take on the body snatchers of earlier centuries.

Susan said...

I'm with you, Elaine. When I first read about body farms, I was appalled. I understand that forensics experts need to study these things, but this seems a bit drastic.

Unknown said...

ultimate selfie??? EWWWW....