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Last updated on April 17, 2014 at 11:49 EDT

Iowa Professor Seeks Funding for ‘Body Farm’

November 28, 2005

CEDAR FALLS, Iowa — Iowa’s rich topsoil and climate have nourished some of the nation’s most plentiful corn and soybean crops. Tyler O’Brien wants to learn more about their influence on rotting corpses.

A biological anthropology professor at the University of Northern Iowa, O’Brien envisions turning some prime Iowa pasture into a body farm, where human bodies – buried, stuffed in car trunks or exposed to the elements – can provide scholars and criminalists with new benchmark data on human decay.

“This idea has strong scientific value,” O’Brien said. “To answer the question of how long a body has been dead, how long a person has been missing, is critical to criminal investigations.”

O’Brien is seeking a grant of $400,000 to $500,000 from the National Institute of Justice and other organizations to obtain the land and set up the project.

If approved, the body farm would be just the second in the nation and closely modeled after the work pioneered by O’Brien’s mentor, William Bass III, at the University of Tennessee’s Forensic Anthropology Center.

Inside a secure, three-acre parcel near the Tennessee campus, Bass and his team have spent more than 30 years painstakingly documenting the decay of bodies buried in coffins and shallow dirt graves, partially submerged in a pond, or exposed to bugs, rodents and hot, muggy summers.

Bass’ project and research have been used to teach hundreds of criminalists and served as a centerpiece in a variety of books, including crime writer Patricia Cornwell’s 1994 best seller “The Body Farm” and Bass’ own memoir, “Death’s Acre.”

“Before the body farm at Tennessee, there was not much known about the decomposition process,” said Mary Manhein, a professor of forensic anthropology at Louisiana State University and a fellow at the American Academy of Forensic Sciences. “I have always felt we need more than one place for a model to better understand the whole process.”

Bass believes there is a need for a second location because it is critical to study decay in different climates. “This is research that is extremely vital to society, science and law enforcement,” he said.

The Midwest offers a flat and open landscape exposed to wind, rain, sun, snow and extreme temperature shifts. It also offers an entirely new spectrum of plants, rodents and bugs, whose life cycle can provide clues to when someone was killed or the body was dumped.

“Do you have any idea how much heat is generated in the middle of a cornfield in the summer?” O’Brien asked. “It gets awfully hot in there, with little air. It could be very important to know how a micro-climate like that affects decomposition. Different environments can change the rate of decay and tell us new facts about what happened.”

Law enforcement officials also see great value in the research. “What happens to a body over time and why can lead us to more factual conclusions,” said Eugene Meyer, director of the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation.

If O’Brien’s grant is approved – and he has been rejected before – the site would be owned by the university and secured by a chain-link fence topped with razor wire around a taller privacy fence.

Despite the mass appeal of TV crime shows like “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation,” O’Brien knows persuading the public to see beyond the grim details will be a hard sell.

Bodies used at the farm would be donated by families in the region much the same as they donate a body for medical research.

At the Tennessee body farm, more than 100 people have filed donor applications this year, up from last year, and more than 600 are on file from the past 10 years, according to Dr. Richard Jantz, director of the university’s Forensic Anthropology Center.

Roy Crawford, a 54-year-old mining engineer and part-time forensic engineer from Whitesburg, Ky., decided to donate his body in 1993 after overcoming a bout with cancer.

As someone who has attended classes at the body farm, Crawford views his commitment as a moral duty on par with donating his body for medical research.

“I like the idea that one day research done on my body might be used to catch a murderer,” he said. He knows some might think such use of bodies to be disrespectful.

“But I look at it as a scientific laboratory in nature, and I think nature is beautiful,” he said. “The idea of being propped up against a tree to decompose sounds a whole lot better than being locked in a box and preserved under the ground.”

On the Net:

University of Northern Iowa Department of Sociology, Anthropology and Criminology: http://fp.uni.edu/sac/index.htm

University of Tennessee Forensic Anthropology Center: http://web.utk.edu/anthrop/FACcenter.html