In the name of science

When living in a highly rural state such as Texas, farms are not an uncommon sight. However, the latest addition to the Sam Houston State Criminal Justice Department will not be for cows or planting crops; it will be one of just four body farms in the nation.

Just like it sounds, a body farm is a research facility where human decomposition after death can be scientifically studied in a variety of settings. These studies aid in solving crimes by determining how bodies decompose when they are left to the elements — submerged in water, left in the sun, covered with dirt or even left in car trunks.

There are only three other body farms in the nation, located at the University of Tennessee, Western Carolina University and Texas State University, with the latter being the largest.

Huntsville’s location in a subtropical humid climate, along with the work of SHSU’s highly-reputed Criminal Justice Department, provided a much-needed environment in which to study the decaying of bodies.

“[The SHSU body farm] will be used for a variety of interdisciplinary research,” said Dr. Joan Bytheway, who developed the idea of SHSU’s body farm in 2005. “There is no published data on the natural process of human decomposition in Southeast Texas, that is, factors such as temperature, soil type, insect activity and criminal deposition behaviors.”

Another characteristic that made Huntsville a prime body farm location is its close proximity to Houston, the fourth largest city in the United States, where authorities face many violent crimes.

“It is more probable that we will encounter bodies that have been maliciously deposited more frequently than in smaller cities,” Bytheway said.

The data collected from the new body farm can be used by law enforcement and forensic scientists in the southeast region of Texas and other areas around the world that share this type of environment. Also forensic science, biology, medicine and law enforcement students will possibly use this facility as a learning tool.

When choosing a location for the body farm the major concern was making sure there were no neighbors adjacent whose noses would have to endure the surely unpleasant odors arising from the farm. The facility will cover approximately 10 acres and is located on a dead-end road (no pun intended) with the nearest residence more than a mile away.

“The Center of Biological Studies was already conducting decomposition studies on animals [at the site], so it was a very natural fit,” said Bytheway.

A portion of this facility is already complete and body donations are currently being accepted. The morgue-type section of the farm will be completed in early April.

Most of the cadavers come from people who donated their bodies to science, while others come from families who could not afford to bury their family member. Bytheway noted that one of the department’s main objectives is to protect the dignity of the remains. “They are very valuable to us,” she said.

If it is not requested that the remains be returned to the family after two years, then the remaining skeletal material will be stored in a skeletal data collection used by researchers around the world.

Even though the idea of a body farm produces unpleasant reactions, a lot of valuable information will be gained through the study of human decomposition — knowledge that could potentially save a life, keeping one cadaver out of the farm.

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