Inside the Forensic Osteology Research Station at WCU

The Forensic Anthropology Program at Western Carolina University opened the Forensic Osteology Research Station (FOREST) in 2006, a human decomposition facility that was only the second of its kind in the nation at that time.

Dr. Cheryl Johnston, associate professor of forensic anthropology, sat down with The Western Carolinian to give an inside glimpse into the mysterious facility irreverently referred to as the “body farm.”

FOREST is a human decomposition facility that currently has nine whole human remains, two of which are buried, according to Johnston, who instructs her students often using FOREST. FOREST is located across Highway 107 on the Millennial Campus.

“Some remains come from people who donate individually, but most come from family donors who either have no money for proper burials, were estranged from the deceased person or don’t know what to do with that person’s remains. Sometimes we take in any unclaimed bodies in Jackson County or surrounding counties. Not many have come this way, maybe one or two,” said Johnston.

This process, especially having individuals come to her office to donate their bodies, has been especially trying for Johnston.

“It has taught me a lot about death. At first I was shocked when I met someone that I knew I would be working on after his or her death, and I never thought about that possibility, but I have gotten more acclimated to it,” said Johnston.

Once the program acquires the remains, many different tests and studies may be done to them. For instance, two remains are currently buried, the rest are in different stages of decomposition, and others are now curated and cataloged in the Western Carolina Human Identification Laboratory (WCHIL), a fully equipped facility dedicated to the recovery storage, and analysis of human remains, according to its website.

Johnston uses every stage of decomposition to instruct her students, many of whom will go on to pursue careers as detectives and crime scene investigators.

“I am currently teaching a course called Taphonomy, which is the study of decomposition. They will be following the decomposition of some of the bodies. Students collect the remains and bring them in for study in the lab. Mostly this is late stage decomposition and involves finding out how old bones are and when a death occurred,” said Johnston.

Johnston also runs the summer Field Recovery and Human Remains School, a four-week course that involves students learning how to properly recover remains from graves. Currently, students do not recover real human remains, as the supply is limited. Instead, students recover bear carcasses.

“Surprisingly, a bear’s skeleton is very similar to a human’s except for the skull. Really, it’s about giving students the experience of recovering bones. We have a large bear remain collection, which could be valuable if a forensic case comes up involving bears,” said Johnston.

The decomposition facility is also used for students who take an independent study with Johnston.

“A lot of people do independent study with me so they can go out to the facility. I have students that go collect insect data and forensic samples twice a week that are studying diurnal versus nocturnal insects or weather studies,” said Johnston. Recently the facility has been used for cadaver dog training, teaching the dogs to sniff out different stages of body decomposition. Johnston hopes to acquire a few acres for the program to do remains studies, which would come in handy for cadaver dog training in regard to shallow graves.

“Getting more land for our program would go a long way, of course, with the dogs, but also for our students. More area for remains would allow for real graves in our summer field school and also for increasing the amount of studies that we can do at one time,” said Johnston.

Overall, Johnston hopes that increased awareness for FOREST will allow people to see past the “body farm” image of the facility.

“In reality, these are people who have lived amongst us and have donated their remains to help students learn. We call them by their names when we study them to help give the students perspective and to prevent any types of joking. Some joking occurs however, as will happen in any situation where real human remains are being handled to simply calm the mood,” said Johnston.

While it began as only the second decomposition facility in the country, more of these types of facilities have cropped up throughout the nation.

“Other colleges have approached us for advice about starting up their own facility. Dr. [John] Williams went to Colorado to help out a school that was getting theirs set up. We have the Anatomy Commission, who gives us advice and who we respect, but there is no national governing body for these types of facilities, so it is important for us to communicate,” said Johnston.

Johnston has high hopes for the facility, which is relatively young, and also for her students, who gain invaluable experience working with real human remains in the facility.

“Our first donor arrived in 2007 and right now we have a relatively small facility housing not even ten whole remains,” said Johnston, who stressed that with sustained university support and continued donations, the sky is the limit for the facility and the program.