Other body farms struggled with location
The four places in the United States that serve as scientific repositories for decomposing human bodies are all guarded by 8- or 10-foot-high chain-link fences topped with razor or barbed wire to discourage would-be vandals and limit scavenger activity.
All refuse to accept corpses carrying communicable diseases.
After an initial barrage of questions and opposition from citizens, the professors who run these forensic anthropology centers — or body farms — say the ruckus died down, and the residents of the cities in which they operate have accepted or even embraced them.
Three of the four share something else in common: Program directors reconsidered their facilities’ locations because of either real or feared backlash from the community.
This is the backdrop against which Mesa State College is attempting to become the fifth institution of higher education in the country to establish a body farm, an open-air lab intended to expand forensic and criminal justice students’ and professionals’ knowledge of how, when and where people die.
But there are some notable differences between Mesa State’s proposed operation and those elsewhere.
The location of Mesa State’s center at 29 Road and Riverside Parkway — administrators insist it will be a temporary site — is at the juncture of two roads local governments have spent or will spend tens of millions of dollars to widen and improve. It’s also within a couple hundred yards of homes, making it the closest to, and least screened from, a residential area among the four other facilities.
In addition, Mesa State’s will be the first in a higher-altitude, semi-arid climate. Experts say that will change everything from the rate at which bodies decompose to what types of insects and animals visit the facility.
Here’s a look at how and where body farms in North Carolina, Tennessee and Texas came into existence, the issues they encountered and how their communities have received them.
UNIVERSITY OF TENNESSEE
Opened in 1981, the Anthropological Research Facility in Knoxville is the oldest center in the country and has served as a blueprint for the other programs. Mesa State faculty visited the facility to help craft their own program.
The Tennessee program inspired “The Body Farm,” a novel by crime-fiction author Patricia Cornwell, and was featured in author Mary Roach’s “Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers,” a novel both comical and scientific in its examination of the role of human bodies throughout history.
University spokesman Jay Mayfield said the facility started as a 15-foot-wide, 15-foot-long spot and grew to a 1.3-acre site. He said the university is working to expand the operation.
The facility is centrally located within a thick forest of trees across the Tennessee River from the main campus. It sits near a busy highway and behind the university’s medical center. A private condominium complex is perched on a large hill above the facility roughly 500 and 600 feet away at its nearest point, Mayfield said.
Despite its close proximity to housing and the medical center, Mayfield said the facility hasn’t created friction with neighbors.
“There has been historically almost no complaints from neighbors or from the community in general about the presence of the facility,” he said.
He said the university fielded numerous questions about the facility when it first opened. But as time passed, people learned about the purpose of the facility, it gained national recognition, and residents grew supportive of it.
“People in Knoxville have grown to be proud of this facility,” Mayfield said. “That feels counterintuitive. But it really is a source of great pride, now that people know what it is.”
One of the most common or expected concerns — odor — isn’t near the issue people may think it is, he said.
While odor is more detectable in the summer than winter, Mayfield claims the smell is “not that noticeable” 10 to 15 feet outside the fence. The reason for that, he says, is that the molecules of the chemicals produced during decomposition are heavy, so they aren’t susceptible to breezes that can carry the odor a great distance.
“The smell from the body tends to stay with the body,” he said.
The fence around the facility is designed to keep out as many scavengers as possible. Any that do get in, such as rodents, aren’t able to take bones out with them, Mayfield said.
WESTERN CAROLINA UNIVERSITY
The second forensic research facility in the United States, located on the edge of the Great Smoky Mountains in western North Carolina, is the smallest of the four. Students currently are studying only two bodies in an area the size of a small garage, and the facility has the capacity to handle a total of six.
But it took officials at Western Carolina University several years to get their decomposition research station up and running, in part because the university hid its plans from the community, then encountered strong resistance when people found out about them, according to John Williams, director of Western Carolina’s forensic anthropology program.
“You don’t spring it on people, and that was our mistake. We made no contact with neighbors ahead of time, and their immediate reaction was, ‘Not in my backyard,’ ” he said.
The university initially proposed to place the facility within a half-mile of homes. Local opposition prompted officials to move the site to a roughly 300-acre parcel owned by the university on an unpaved road within a wooded area about a mile away from homes.
Williams said before driving the first fence post into the ground, administrators met with neighbors and laid out their plans for the facility “so when the announcement was made, there was no reaction.” The university also had to meet a county health department requirement that the facility be a certain distance away from any water source.
In contrast, Mesa State didn’t notify neighbors of its intentions and initially refused to identify the location of the facility.
Williams said he would have advised the college to be up front with residents and secure community support before beginning construction.
“I would very strongly recommend that they make sure that they do this ahead of time. Don’t wait until the last minute. Make sure that everyone is on board before you develop this facility. It will pay off,” he said.
Told how close Mesa State’s facility will be to homes, Williams responded, “Whoa. I’m amazed. We would never have been successful that close.”
He said Western Carolina’s center has kept out scavengers other than small animals such as mice that can carry away small bones, something he said is “expected” and “part of the natural process.” And he echoed Tennessee’s Mayfield by claiming odor isn’t near the problem people believe it will be.
“We know from our own personal experience that (outside of) 20 feet of the fence, you can no longer detect odors,” Williams said.
He said the university hasn’t received a complaint about the facility in its three years of existence.
Lynn Hotaling, the editor of The Sylva Herald, a weekly newspaper in a town about five miles from the university campus in Cullowhee, said the facility isn’t an issue in the community.
“Nobody has said a word. We haven’t heard the first peep,” she said, acknowledging that may be because of the facility’s remote location. “You can’t really see it or get to it.”
TEXAS STATE UNIVERSITY
The university’s forensic anthropology program and Forensic Anthropology Research Facility are run by Michelle Hamilton and Kate Spradley, respectively. Both received their doctorates from the University of Tennessee and worked for years at Anthropological Research Facility in Knoxville.
But that didn’t make Texas State’s foray into the study of human decomposition a breeze.
The university planned to locate its center across a two-lane highway from homes and near the San Marcos Municipal Airport. But residents voiced worries about runoff, coyotes and property values, while pilots contended buzzards could pose a danger to airplanes, according to an article in the Austin American-Statesman and Anita Miller, news editor with the San Marcos Record.
After holding a public meeting, officials ultimately moved the facility to a five-acre plot within a 4,500-acre working ranch owned by the university. The site is at least a mile away from any homes, Spradley said.
“It was very important to have community support,” Spradley said. “I think that’s really the only way a facility like this can exist. If they have community support, it should be very successful. If they don’t have community support, if they have people fighting them every step of the way, I think it will be very difficult.”
Spradley said she understands citizen concerns about body farms, particularly if one is to be located near homes.
“As a homeowner, I would be very upset, because I would be concerned about my property value,” she said.
Miller said she hasn’t heard any complaints from the public since the facility opened 18 months ago.
“Everybody is pretty much happy with that (site),” she said. “It’s in a secluded area. There’s no public access, no road.”
Officials work to limit scavengers because they want to maintain a skeletal collection, but Spradley said animals such as raccoons can slip in.
“What they would be able to drag out would be very small,” she said. “Our fence is pretty good.”
Spradley said there is a large population of vultures in southeast Texas, but the university places cages over bodies to prevent scavenging. In the instances in which the facility wants to study the effects of vulture scavenging on decomposition, vultures stay with the body rather than fly away with the remains, she said.
SAM HOUSTON STATE UNIVERSITY
Joan Bytheway was part of a team of forensic scientists that spent six months in Iraq examining hundreds of bodies of Kurdish people exterminated by former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. She said her work helped convict Hussein, who was later executed.
That effort further convinced the director of the Southeast Texas Applied Forensic Science Facility in Huntsville of the value of facilities where human decomposition can be studied and recorded.
“You need to stress to the community how valuable those donations are and that they treat them with the utmost respect,” she said. “I’ve told my students, ‘If you think you’re going to come in here and goof off, you’re going to be out of here.’ “
Like Western Carolina and Texas State, Sam Houston State abandoned the first proposed facility site: a university-owned ranch used by the military and agricultural students that was only about 100 yards away from the nearest home. Bytheway said officials scuttled the location even before the public at-large learned about it.
“I didn’t want to pursue those big headaches,” Bytheway said.
Instead, the facility found a home on nine acres of a 247-acre ranch donated to the university. It’s bordered by a national forest on two sides, and the nearest neighbor is a mile away, she said.
Bytheway said the university purposely kept the project under wraps.
“We did not make it public. We did this very low-key. We knew we weren’t near neighbors,” she said.
Even though Sam Houston State’s program is in a rural location, Bytheway said she doesn’t necessarily agree with the contention that such facilities should be built in remote areas. She noted the security fence at the University of Tennessee is the only buffer between bodies and the university medical center parking lot.
A remote facility “would make it nicer” for homeowners, she said, “but animals die all the time and are just left in the woods or left on the side of the road.”
Officials had to jump through several regulatory hoops in order to launch their program. The university’s own biology department required the facility to build two lakes to corral runoff that may contain bodily fluids. That water can then be filtered before it drains into a creek that runs through the property.
Sam Houston State had to demonstrate to the Environmental Protection Agency that any fluids leaching into the soil weren’t entering any water system. The university also has to file a quarterly report with the Anatomical Board of the State of Texas.
Unlike Texas State, Sam Houston State largely doesn’t discourage the 20 or so vultures that perch in the trees above the facility, Bytheway said. Research to date has shown that while vultures will attempt to pick up limbs, they can’t fly away with them, she said, and if they do collect smaller remains, they stay close by with them.
“They’re not big travelers,” Bytheway said. “Their intention is to eat it.”