Studying how bodies decompose could prove critical to solving murder cases, although there are very few sites in the world that conduct this research.
While the effects of sub-zero temperatures on decomposing human body parts is a topic that has been left largely untouched, forensic researchers at a small Wisconsin technical college seek to change that.
The researchers have taken initiative by creating a body farm aimed specifically at studying the effects of the extreme cold on human cadavers. The bodies come from donations.
In a two-acre outdoor research facility within a larger public safety facility at the Fox Valley Technical College, the body farm will allow a space for forensic scientists and law enforcement specialists to bury human cadavers at varying depths, observing the effects of cold weather and insects on decomposing bodies, Fox Valley Technical College spokesperson Chris Jossart said.
“The forensic training field will be part a forensic science associate degree program,” Jossart said. “It will also be used for forensic scientists to engage in continuing their education in their field of expertise.”
Until recently, little was known about the way that bodies decompose, Joe LeFevre, FVTC forensics science department chair, said. The first body farm was established in Tennessee in the early 1970s, studying the process of human body decomposition. The Fox Valley cold weather body farm will be the seventh in the world and the only one of its kind, LeFevre said.
“All of those climates don’t hit sub-zero temperatures like we do, ” LeFevre said. “When humans are outside decomposing in sub-zero temperatures, we start to see mummification. What we want to look at is the decomposition process including insect and scavenger activity.”
LeFevre said there are many unanswered questions regarding the ways human bodies decompose after death, and the body farm will aid in police investigations.
Body farms often attempt to replicate crime scenes to gain additional information into the circumstances of individuals’ deaths. Research in this field can give investigators better approximations of the time and circumstances of a death, LeFevre said.
“Oftentimes experimental design is driven by real cases,” he said. “If the investigator had more data, would they have had an easier time answering some questions about their investigation?”
There have even been incidents where officers and investigators have reached out to body farms and ask if they can replicate a crime scene and they realize it is going to be months before they have an answer, but they still want an answer, LeFevre said.
Researchers will also look at more general causes of death that are not connected to crime scenes such as deaths from drowning, hypothermia and other accidental deaths.
To gain more general information, LeFevre said researchers will construct props such as swimming pools or a tent at the facility to see how the bodies decompose in them. Most information would come from human observation and researchers routinely checking on cadavers, he said.
“It’s mostly good old fashioned human observation, where at regular time points you go in and look at it,” LeFevre said. “But with technology we are aided by having cameras set up too so that if we miss an event we can look back at the footage.”
After the bodies are done being used for research, the facility will cremate them and return them to the family, LeFevre said. They will start experiments on body decomposition with pig carcasses to ensure the reliability and safety of the study before moving on to human cadavers, he said.