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Life and death at a human decomposition facility

Students Processing Lab Landscape
Felix Poon
/
NHPR
Students Victoria Deal, Carlee Green and Kadri Greene clean the bones of a donor in the processing lab.

Few bear witness to human decomposition. We embalm and seal bodies in caskets, and bury them six feet underground. Decomposition happens out of sight and out of mind — or, in the case of cremation, is skipped over entirely.

But at human decomposition facilities, sometimes known as "body farms," students and researchers see rotting corpses every day. They watch as scavengers and bacteria feast on them. And when it's all over, they clean the skeletons, and file them away in a collection.

In this episode, producer Felix Poon visits a human decomposition facility in North Carolina to see what the people who work there have learned about death. Listen to find out how a human body decomposes and why a person might choose to wind up there in the first place.

Featuring: Nick Passalacqua, Rebecca George, Carter Unger, Maggie Klemm, Carlee Green, Victoria Deal, Kadri Greene, Mackenzie Gascon, Reagan Baechle, Leigh Irwin, and Lucinda Denton

Content Warning: The following images show late-stage decomposing human corpses.

The idea for the first human decomposition facility came to forensic anthropologist Bill Bass in large part from a mistake he made early in his career, in 1977.

As Bass recounts in the National Geographic Documentary,Secrets of the Body Farm, he once mistook the body of a Civil War soldier for a fresh corpse, ultimately getting the time-since-death estimation wrong by over 100 years. The error haunted him and pushed him to create the University of Tennessee Anthropological Research Facility, which opened in 1980.

But Bass wasn’t the first person to study and document human decomposition. In 1247, Song Ci wrote a book titled Collected Records of Washing Away Unjust Imputations. The Chinese title 洗冤集錄 is sometimes translated as “Collected Cases of Injustice Rectified” or “The Washing Away of Wrongs,” and the author’s name 宋慈 is sometimes Romanized as Sung Tz’u.

Pages from Collected Records of Washing Away Unjust Imputations giving the nomenclature of human bones
Public Domain
/
Wikimedia Commons
Pages from Collected Records of Washing Away Unjust Imputations giving the nomenclature of human bones

Links

If you want to hear from another pre-registered donor about their decision to donate their body, you can read Fawn Fitter’s New York Times article, My Afterlife on the Body Farm, about how she intends to help solve crimes as part of a world-renowned criminal justice program after she dies.

If you’re curious to read more about the “CSI Effect,” check out this article.

And if you want to read up on how the field of forensics is talking about evolving their concepts of race and gender, check out Decolonizing ancestry estimation in the United States and Centering Transgender Individuals in Forensic Anthropology and Expanding Binary Sex Estimation in Casework and Research.

Felix Poon first came to NHPR in 2020 as an intern, producing episodes for Outside/In, Civics 101, and The Second Greatest Show on Earth. He went to work for Gimlet Media’s How to Save a Planet before returning in 2021 as a producer for Outside/In. Felix’s Outside/In episode Ginkgo Love was featured on Spotify's Best Podcasts of 2020.
Outside/In is a show where curiosity and the natural world collide. Click here for podcast episodes and more.
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