Monday, June 7, 2010

The Body Farm

Today, this Page contains GRAPHIC photographs of the DEAD.
Proceed only with the understanding that you may be disturbed.

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 "A body farm is a research facility where human decomposition can be studied in a variety of settings. The aim is to gain a better understanding of the decomposition process, permitting the development of techniques for extracting information (such as the timing and circumstances of death) from human remains. Body farm research is particularly important within forensic anthropology and related disciplines, and has applications in the fields of law enforcement and forensic science. Four such facilities exist in the United States." (from Wikipedia: link)

The original body farm was at the University of Tennessee Anthropological Research Facility near Knoxville, TN, started by Dr. Bill Bass in 1981. A great article on Dr. Bass can be found at

Forensic anthropologist Bill Bass, left, and his co-author, Jon Jefferson, examine a decaying corpse on the Body Farm.
Picture: Caroline Overington

The video below gives you a good introduction to the facility and its history by Dr. Bass, himself.

Even National Geographic has produced a short video on Dr. Bass's work. Their version (with lots of camera jiggle effects) is less graphic than the videos provided below, but it gives a good overview of the facility.  See it at this link.

For a more graphic and detailed account of the Body Farm, also presented by Dr. Bass, see the three parts below. These are more graphic, so advanced warning is given....Viewer Beware!

Part One:

Part Two:

Part Three:

Of course with such a vivid concept of death and decay, it didn't take long for artists and writers to reference the facility within their work. First we find crime mystery writers using it as a backdrop for their stories and characters' lives. See Patricia Cornwell's The Body Farm, and of course Kathy Reichs' character, Dr. Temperance Brennan, who sometimes references the body farm in Reichs' novels (but not so much in the TV series, Bones). The author, herself, has a working knowledge of the body farm, as Dr. Reichs is one of only eighty-two forensic anthropologists ever certified by the American Board of Forensic Anthropology. Even Dr. Bass himself, along with his colleague Jon Jefferson, have collaboratively written crime mystery novels under the pen name Jefferson Bass. Their site also has links to more videos about the body farm.

One visual artist who has worked within the fence line of the body farm is photographer Sally Mann. Her book What Remains examines the mortality and decay of her family dog, the occupants of the body farm, and a fatal incident occurring near her home. A great documentary film was made in 2005 while she produced many of the images within her wonderful book. It is also entitled What Remains. Mann used the archaic 19th century collodion wet plate process in order to create these images on glass plates with a large format view camera. These are a few examples from her book:

(Above three images: copyright Sally Mann. Thanks in advance for their use here.)

The visual and almost tactile qualities of this old analogue process, with all its flaws and apparent image decay, seem well suited to documenting the dark mood and atmosphere of the body farm and its inhabitants, especially in the hands of an artist like Sally Mann.

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