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12.3 facts about Australia’s Body Farm

At the recent EHA conference I heard an awesome talk by Dr Shari Forbes. She’s the driving force behind Australia’s first body farm. To be honest this has nothing to do with our products, but I thought it was a really cool talk. So here’s 12.3 things you didn’t know about body farms…

The organisers don’t like calling it a body farm. Thanks to Patricia Cornwell everyone calls them body farms. That’s what happens when authors latch onto an idea. CSI then latched onto the name as well.

They don’t grow bodies. If you want to know how to grow bodies then you will need a totally different blog site. It’s a “farm” (i.e. a large patch of land) with dead bodies scattered around it. A bit like “rock farmers”. So their common name is wrong.

The technical name for the branch of study is taphonomy.  That’s a fancy word for “burial” (tapho) “law” (nomy). Once again a name that is wrong because they don’t bury the bodies. They just leave them lying around. OK, some they will bury, but that’s bury like in “dig a hole and put them in it” as opposed to “have a big church ceremony, get a guy dressed in black to say a few words, and have a group stand around the hole”.

So my knowledge is off to a great start. Everything I know is wrong.

There are currently 7 body farms in the US, and a couple more scattered around the world, but Australia had none. When I saw the locations of the body farms in the US I was disappointed again. There are none near Las Vegas. CSI lied to me! How can they investigate a dead body dumped in a body farm when there are no body farms nearby!

The purpose of a body farm is study human decomposition. If you think you have a job that stinks, then you haven’t seen anything yet.

Why is it so important that Australia have it’s own body farm? It turns out (surprise, surprise) that Australia has its own types of soil, vegetation, insects and invertebrates. So it’s not just the big stuff above the ground that kills you that is different, it’s what gets you afterwards as well. In fact, Australia has 18 of the top 20 deadliest maggots in the world (that’s is a totally bogus statistic, and probably doesn’t make any sense anyway – after all, you are dead).

The body farm is located just outside of Sydney in a “secret” location. That’s “secret” provided you don’t use Google.

Given that the “secret” location isn’t that secret, they do have a huge property (140 acres) with a smaller area fenced off (12 acres). By fenced off, they really mean fenced off. It’s like a prison. I guess that makes sense because people are dying to get in.

As for those inside, will they ever escape? It turns out that bodies donated to science need to be returned after 4 years, or if they really push it, 8 years. That was a bit of a problem because these guys want to know what bodies look like after a decade or two. So they got special, special permission to keep corpses indefinitely – just like parliament!

We were shown a list of “supporters” – that is a list of organisations that are queueing to do research there or hanging on to get the results – and the list is growing. There were the obvious ones like the police but ANSTO was in the list.

The police always have their magical “can you give us an estimated time of death” and the body farm is essential in providing more reliable information. Next week when you are watching that B-Grade cop drama and they dig up a body you now know where the super geek got his information from. Just wait for it…”based on the amount of decomposition and the presence of the Ipsydipsy Maggot, I would place time of death to be 3 years, 2 months, 18 days ago, probably at 2:21 pm”.

Though the applications are much wider than just B-Grade TV. The knowledge gained is essential for search and rescue for finding bodies after natural disasters like tsunamis, earthquakes, floods, and bush fires. Then there are the non-natural disasters like war crimes, genocide and aircraft crashes. It’s about establishing time frames, finding bodies, and identifying people.

Then there were bits of trivia like the fact that maggots give off heat and that heat signatures can be used by police searching for dead bodies, but that it will only be present for a certain number of days. Next time you see the police using an infrared camera looking for a heat signature, just realise it may not be for what you expect.

Finally, how do you donate your body to the body farm? You need to apply at UTS to donate your body to science – and talk to your surviving relatives. Just giving consent isn’t enough, your relatives can veto your decision once you are dead.

There are also some other conditions like you can’t be related to, or know, anyone working at the body farm. For some reason someone thought it was too traumatic to watch someone you know slowly turn into natural fertiliser. This means that Dr Shari Forbes can’t donate her body to the body farm.

 

 

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