Right behind employee parking for the University of Tennessee Medical Center in Knoxville, a line of bushes all but hides a gray privacy fence. More than 7 feet tall and topped with razor wire, the fence?s wooden slats shield the public from the world?s only human decay research station, which readers of this magazine have glimpsed more than once.
So morbid-seeming are the experiments that unfold here that Patricia Cornwell, the doyenne of gruesome murder mysteries, once said of her visit, ?Every cell in my body cried out against the place.?
Me, I could hardly wait to get back to the site, where I have tagged along as some of the world?s most unusual forensic scientists explored their research.
Strange as it may sound, the sun-dappled meadow and shady hillside trails of the Body Farm have always struck me as more Pooh?s Corner than Night of the Living Dead. Calmness envelops this place, notwithstanding the 30-odd corpses in residence at any given time. Though stuffed in garbage bags, rolled inside carpets, tied to tree trunks, covered with concrete or simply moldering down to bone amid the ivy and fallen leaves, the Body Farm?s subjects are not the victims of horror or neglect. They have willed their bodies to a final mission -- service in the forensic study of human decay. Scientists attend to these volunteers with respect, even a strange sort of affection.
So, on a recent rain-washed and chilly morning, I pressed my face between the padlocked gates of the Body Farm and called out the name of Arpad Vass, a slightly graying forensic anthropologist and research chemist who had promised to show me a new forensic technology now in development. Vass is at the forefront of research into new technology at the 2-acre alfresco mortuary. His latest project: to fashion an electronic nose that will not only detect the gassy exhalations of buried corpses but also ?read? those gases to determine a victim?s time of death.
Time of death is still among the most elusive and inexact determinations in forensic science, and it?s often critical when police want to connect a body to a suspect. Vass hopes to move beyond studying ecological clues, which has long been the Body Farm?s focus. The observation of insects on bodies has yielded important techniques for estimating time of death, but, Vass believes, ?The time for subjective observation is past. It just won?t stand up in court anymore. I?m pushing hard for forensic anthropology to get a grounding in the hard sciences.?
Last year?s Danielle van Dam murder trial, in which David Westerfield was convicted of kidnapping and murdering the 7-year-old San Diego girl, reinforced Vass? point. Prosecutors and defense lawyers called on four of the world?s leading forensic entomologists and anthropologists to establish when the killer dumped the victim by the side of a road. No two of them could agree on the age of the maggots found on her body. Good thing the case didn?t hinge on insect evidence.