On the Body Farm

The Monthly (Australia) - - CONTENTS - by Ma­rina Kamenev

The land­scape sur­round­ing Aus­tralia’s first body farm looks like a slice of Aus­traliana from a Tom Roberts can­vas. Wiry eu­ca­lyp­tus trees reach through the canopy for broad, open skies. The soft, mus­tard-coloured earth is car­peted with twigs and beige leaves, soggy from the re­cent rain. The si­lence here is bro­ken only by the in­ter­mit­tent calls of bell­birds. There is a string of pale pink tape, rem­i­nis­cent of a chil­dren’s party streamer, at­tached to some nearby trees. It marks out a six-per­son mass grave. The bodies in­side are slowly de­com­pos­ing – bones and DNA com­min­gling – ready to be dug up next year and re­assem­bled like jig­saw pieces shaken in a box. Shari Forbes stands next to the tape, car­ry­ing a jaunty yel­low um­brella. “We have deep soil here so we use it for buri­als,” she says of the 5-hectare plot lo­cated at Yar­ra­mundi, in the lower Blue Moun­tains west of Syd­ney. “The ground is soft at the mo­ment be­cause it’s wet, but as some­body who has dug into this ground be­fore, it’s [nor­mally] very hard … We do have an ex­ca­va­tor, which we use for the mass graves.” Forbes is the direc­tor of the Aus­tralian Fa­cil­ity for Tapho­nomic Ex­per­i­men­tal Re­search (AF­TER), more col­lo­qui­ally known as the body farm. The fa­cil­ity is set within a 48-hectare par­cel of land be­long­ing to the Univer­sity of Tech­nol­ogy Syd­ney, where she teaches stu­dents about the in­ves­ti­ga­tion of hu­man re­mains. “It’s ac­tu­ally one of my favourite places,” Forbes con­fides, her face wreathed by damp blonde curls. At AF­TER, foren­sic an­a­lysts from UTS and 14 part­ner or­gan­i­sa­tions mon­i­tor the de­te­ri­o­ra­tion of vol­un­tar­ily do­nated hu­man re­mains, either buried or ex­posed, to aid po­lice and other spe­cial­ists tasked with re­cov­er­ing corpses and cal­cu­lat­ing the time since death. This is the first body farm es­tab­lished out­side the United States, and it of­fers the chance to look at how Aus­tralian flora and fauna con­trib­ute to the de­com­po­si­tion process. While in­for­ma­tion from the half dozen US fa­cil­i­ties has been help­ful in out­lin­ing the broad strokes of de­cay, much data needs to be spe­cific to con­di­tions where bodies are re­cov­ered. Forbes be­lieves the Blue Moun­tains area is perfect for this. “When peo­ple are try­ing to con­ceal hu­man re­mains, they do it in a re­mote lo­ca­tion that is typ­i­cally bush­land.” She also says it’s a good lo­ca­tion in which to set up sce­nar­ios for lo­cat­ing bodies of miss­ing bush­walk­ers. The mass grave marked with pink tape cov­ers an area of about 2 square me­tres, and has sunk a few inches as the bodies have de­com­posed. “Once bodies be­come skele­tonised, the bones fall apart and … min­gle,” Forbes ex­plains. “The chal­lenge is to iden­tify the vic­tims and make sure that you are deal­ing with the right bones.” The data from this grave will be used in re­la­tion to war crimes. Foren­sic ar­chae­ol­o­gists will see if any use­ful ev­i­dence can be ex­humed with the bodies, such as foot­prints near the burial or marks on items of cloth­ing. Re­searchers also look for ev­i­dence per­tain­ing to the weapon caus­ing death. “We don’t ac­tu­ally shoot the body,” Forbes clar­i­fies, ex­plain­ing that the NSW Po­lice Force bal­lis­tics team shot bul­lets through the cloth­ing be­fore plac­ing it on the donors. (The fa­cil­ity takes advice from state and fed­eral po­lice when setting up th­ese ex­per­i­ments.)

Peo­ple as­sume that the ther­mal signature is com­ing from the body but it’s ac­tu­ally com­ing from the mag­got masses.

Be­hind Forbes, work­men in flu­oro vests are pour­ing a slab of con­crete. This area will even­tu­ally re­sem­ble a build­ing col­lapse as might oc­cur in an earth­quake or bomb­ing, or due to poor con­struc­tion work. The UTS cam­pus in cen­tral Syd­ney is cur­rently un­der­go­ing ren­o­va­tions, and soon Forbes will be pil­ing some of the de­mol­ished scraps onto bodies to cre­ate the re­cov­ery sce­nario. This set-up will give Forbes the op­por­tu­nity to fo­cus on her spe­cial­ity: the odour of death. “If you ask ca­daver dogs to help re­cover bodies that are re­cently de­ceased, they may be search­ing for a [de­com­po­si­tion] scent that’s not there.” Re­searchers will mon­i­tor the scent of de­cay and note how long it lingers. The unique bou­quet of hu­man re­mains is ab­sent from the farm to­day. “If we are work­ing on a par­tic­u­lar study right when it’s de­com­pos­ing, it will smell bad.” Jour­nal­ists and non-work­ing vis­i­tors must stay near AF­TER’s perime­ter: a high-se­cu­rity fence that’s wrapped in green gauze, adorned with spi­ralling ra­zor wire and dot­ted with se­cu­rity cam­eras. The fa­cil­ity is ac­cessed by an un­re­mark­able stretch of dirt road with no sig­nage. The ob­scure lo­ca­tion keeps cu­ri­ous out­siders away and pro­tects the donors’ dig­nity. At body farms in the US, scav­engers pro­vide re­searchers with valu­able in­for­ma­tion. Young squir­rels, for ex­am­ple, are drawn to bones that are dry, so squir­rel teeth marks in­di­cate that a body

has been ex­posed for more than a year. While sci­en­tists in Aus­tralia would learn from the be­hav­iour of scav­engers such as goan­nas or wedge-tailed ea­gles, the bodies here are pro­tected from such ac­tiv­ity. “Un­der our li­cence we need to be able to ac­count for our donors’ re­mains at all times,” Forbes says. She is also con­cerned about her neigh­bours, whom she re­gards as very gen­er­ous for al­low­ing the fa­cil­ity to ex­ist. “We would not want birds tak­ing the re­mains and drop­ping them on prop­er­ties in the vicin­ity.” The bodies are, how­ever, ex­posed to in­ver­te­brate scav­engers – in­sects – that help de­ter­mine the mo­ment when death oc­curred. Typ­i­cally, flies are first on the scene of an ex­posed body, lay­ing eggs that hatch into mag­gots. The swarm­ing mag­gots ther­moreg­u­late, and foren­sic en­to­mol­o­gists use their tem­per­a­ture along with knowl­edge of the par­tic­u­lar species as the vari­ables in a formula to work out the min­i­mum time since death. “When we search from the air for miss­ing re­mains, we of­ten use ther­mal imag­ing … Peo­ple as­sume that the ther­mal signature is com­ing from the body but it’s ac­tu­ally com­ing from the mag­got masses,” Forbes says. She strolls past a dull-hued Subaru Lib­erty, which one of her col­leagues gave to the fa­cil­ity. Forbes and her team are wait­ing to ob­tain two more ve­hi­cles be­fore they can start plac­ing bodies in the cab­ins. “We need to un­der­stand how com­po­si­tion varies in an en­closed area. It’s al­most like a glasshouse!” Else­where, nes­tled among the eu­ca­lypts, is a small mound of earth at a freshly dug grave. The soil will soon set­tle to ground level and the area will be used as a kind of foren­sic trea­sure hunt. “If you can’t see it, po­lice will have to think of other ways to look for it. Would they use drones or per­haps dogs?” The sce­nar­ios here are fairly straight­for­ward, but Forbes has seen some elab­o­rate schemes emerg­ing from fa­cil­i­ties in the United States. “There was one where the body was burned and placed in wa­ter, and moved again, and put in a bar­rel and then burned again. Only a crim­i­nal mind could come up with some­thing like that.” AF­TER is cur­rently home to 46 bodies, but more than 500 po­ten­tial donors are on a wait­list. Those who choose to leave their bodies with AF­TER – most of whom are older peo­ple – can make re­quests, which Forbes will try to ac­com­mo­date. Th­ese of­ten in­clude out­fit choices and body place­ment. “We of­ten have donors who say, ‘The rea­son I’m do­nat­ing my body is be­cause I don’t want to be in a grave in a ceme­tery. So I’d pre­fer not to be in a grave out here.’” There are also peo­ple who get cre­ative. Forbes de­scribes how one man wants to be buried with half of his body in wa­ter and the other half on an ant hill. “We don’t have wa­ter here [apart] from the ob­vi­ous pud­dles,” Forbes says, glanc­ing at the sur­round­ing bush­land. “I’ve told him it’s very much de­pen­dent on the weather here at the time.”

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