Though the human decomposition facility, commonly known as the “Body Farm,” has been part of WCU for over a decade, most students still don’t know exactly what it is.
Whether due to the location being kept a secret or that it’s just not discussed often, the ‘stinky jewel of western’ is shrouded in mystery for many.
However, the forensic anthropology department is eager for more students to learn about what they do, and the important role that they play in the study of human remains.
The decomposition facility consists of an outdoor research lab, and four support labs inside their building. Over 80 volunteer requests are submitted each semester by students, but only 20-40 volunteers with anthropology or forensic science-related majors are selected to work at the facility per semester.
Its main goal is not only to study the decomposition of bodies but also to provide a hands-on experience to undergraduates.
Students do 95% of the work, from donor intake to the collection and study of human remains. WCU is one of the only forensic and anthropology programs in the US that allows undergraduates to physically interact with remains. Most universities don’t allow students access to their facilities until they begin studying at a graduate level.
Our facility is one of 10 in the United States, and 12 in the world. When it was built in 2006, it was the second one ever created.
The first was opened at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville in the 1980s, and they own the official title ‘Body Farm.’
This rare form of studying decomposition and skeletal remains in an academic institution serves a big role. Not only does the information serve anthropologists, students, and countless research projects, but it also aids law enforcement from all over the East Coast with forensic expertise and training.
“Say, if we were to be contacted by law enforcement and they sent us a picture or took us out to a body and said, ‘Hey this person looks like this.’ We can say, ‘based on what we know for the way bodies decompose in this part of the country, we would say that this individual has been out for a month,’ or two weeks, or 3 days,” Katie Zejdlik-Passalacqua, Forensic Anthropology Facilities Director, said.
Though the decomposition process is, well, the decomposition process; it is not at all the way it is displayed within movies or TV shows, such as ‘Bones.’
The facility’s location has been kept a secret to protect the donors and treat them with the utmost respect, following through on the promise that they will not become part of a ‘Human Zoo’ once they are donated.
But just because the location is kept a secret, does not mean the vital information they collect and study should be.
According to the staff and students, the decomposition process is actually quite beautiful. The studies completed at our facility can be a wonderful thing to stem out of tragedy, and the unique look at decomposition that every donor gives can help future generations not only at our university but everywhere.
“You think this program is about death right? We have the body farm, and dead people are basically what we’re studying. But I really feel like this program focuses most on the living. So working with families and helping them through this really tough time in their lives when their loved one has passed away. They’re making a really difficult decision to donate. And then the students, who every day are just trying to figure out if this is something they want to do, and how they fit into this career path. So, my favorite part is working with the living. And showing them how we can really respect and get information from the dead,” Christine Bailey, Facility Curator, said.
But you may be wondering, how exactly is all of this accomplished?
One thing that every staff member and volunteer at the facility is very enthusiastic about, is that none of the research would be possible without the generosity of the facilities’ donors.
There are two ways a body gets donated, a pre-donor process or donation by the next of kin.
In the pre-donor process, a willing donor fills out the necessary paperwork themselves, while still alive. This includes a contract, policies form and a biological questionnaire. This questionnaire gives demographic information about the person so that students and faculty researching their remains later can refer back to it.
It is important to note that this pre-donor process is not binding in any way. The choice of whether or not to donate will ultimately fall on the next of kin. If they oppose the donation, the facility is more than happy to respect their wishes.
The second method of donation is made by the next of kin alone. A lot of the time this happens when they know the deceased wanted to donate but didn’t get around to doing the paperwork themselves.
Between 60-70% of donations are made by the next of kin, the other 30-40% are pre-donors. The facility receives between 15-20 donors per year.
According to Zejdlik, WCU gets the number of donors that we do because we prioritize donor’s wants, rather than publishing research or receiving grants. A lot of donors simply want to decompose in the Blue Ridge Mountains because they love it or want to give back to nature, and the facility is more than happy to give that to them.
If someone were to donate to a medical school there would be a lot of specific requirements, but at our facility, there are few requirements for donors to meet.
There is always an option to donate, no matter the state of the person at the time of death, and it doesn’t cost anything.
There are only 4 requirements:
- The facility needs to receive a death certificate certified by the state prior to the donor’s arrival.
- The family needs to transport the donor here. The most common transportation methods are either a funeral service or a mortuary transport.
- The donor cannot have died from, or currently have any kind of contagious diseases or blood-borne pathogens. This includes HPV, AIDS, active TB, COVID-19, etc. This is required by the state across all facilities, WCU has a few extra restrictions because of our student workers.
- Lastly, the weight of the donor cannot exceed 250lbs. This is because of the geographical location of the facility, and that a donor exceeding this weight can risk the safety of the volunteers during placement in the outdoor facility.
However, there are a few exceptions to these requirements.
The family of a donor can transport them to the facility themselves, as it is legal in North Carolina. But they are required to have a permit to cross state lines, and it can be a very difficult task.
Donors with infectious diseases or exceed the weight limit cannot complete a whole body donation, but they can donate their cremated remains. WCU has an extensive cremated remains collection, and it is still very beneficial for law enforcement training and student education.
The Donation Process
Step One: The facility gets a call from the family of the deceased or a funeral service letting them know a donor has passed and will be transported here.
Step Two: The donor arrives at our facility. If the donation is being completed by the next of kin without the pre-donor paperwork already completed, the next of kin will fill out the paperwork upon arrival.
Step Three: The intake process for the donor, completed by volunteers. This process includes taking notes on the donor’s state, and the removal of clothing (unless specified by the donor or next of kin).
Step Four: Placement and Photography. The donor is placed in the wooded outdoor human decomposition facility, and initial photographs are taken.
As the facility is a Level 2 biohazard lab, and the entire donation process is completed by students, everyone is required to wear the appropriate Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) when interacting with remains. Including tie-back suits, cuffs on the arms, shoe booties (or designated shoes for the facility only), gloves and more.
Placement and Photography
Where a donor is placed in the decomposition facility depends on quite a few factors.
First, where they have room. The outdoor facility isn’t the biggest, and a lot of care is taken to make sure that there is enough space between the bodies. Because we get quite a high number of donors, this is one of the main placement factors.
Second, if the facility is currently studying a specific topic. Sometimes the bodies are buried or kept on the surface, depending on if there are any research projects studying specific areas. For example, if they are studying scavengers, the bodies would be left on the surface.
Above all, placement is planned around having the utmost respect for the remains. Making sure they can’t be seen from the fence, and won’t be bothered by anyone is very important to the students and staff.
“Nothing is super easily visible so that we honor those individuals, their identity, and their privacy. We take that super seriously. It’s of our utmost importance that we make sure no one is disturbing any individuals decomposing there,” Mack Cristino, WCU senior and third-year volunteer, said.
Cristino also explained the in-depth security measures around the facility to make sure the donors can rest in peace, including security cameras, trail cameras, regular law enforcement patrols and barbed-wire fences along the perimeter.
The placement of donors requires between 5-6 people. It’s a team effort to get the donors from the lab into the forest because the facility is located on the side of a hill.
After the body has been placed, Bailey will take two students out with her to take photo documentation of the decomposition process on Wednesdays and Fridays each week.
The students are responsible for the ‘dirty work,’ completing tasks like removing debris covering the bodies, while Bailey takes the actual photos. Photos are taken from all different angles, to keep specific track of the decomposition and as the bodies skeletonize.
A lot of different things factor into the rate of decomposition. Warmer temperatures expedite decomposition, while cooler weather slows it down. It also depends on what kinds of insects and scavengers are out, the weather conditions and what kinds of plants are around the remains. Basically, any environmental element can affect the rate of decomposition.
On average It takes around a year for bodies to fully decompose and skeletonize, but in the summer it can happen in as little as 3 or 4 months.
Alexis Brodie is an especially enthusiastic volunteer. As a super-senior, she has worked in the body farm for three years and sees nothing but beauty in this process.
“I like seeing – just the natural environment. I remember going out one time and there were a bunch of butterflies around one of the bodies. I just liked seeing the beauty in how what people would look at as disgusting and not pretty, is leading to the environment around it succeeding and thriving,” Brodie said.
After the decomposition process is completed, students will go out and collect the remains to bring back into the skeletal collection inside the lab. Recovery is the only job for students that has strict requirements for participation.
Because it can be very difficult to identify remains, all students must complete the Osteology course and do well before being allowed to do recovery. This is just to make sure that students know exactly what they’re looking for, and as Zejdlik put it, they aren’t picking up rocks and sticks thinking they are human remains.
Students spend about 3 hours a week completing this process. Mapping out where the remains are, placing them on a tarp in an anatomical position, cataloging which remains are still there, recording any missing remains, and seeing if any remains are co-mingling.
Co-mingling is when two sets of remains are in one place. This can be caused simply by rain due to the facility being on a slope, or because of scavengers. It’s important for students to log any extra bones, so they can figure out who they belong to later.
After locating and cataloging the remains, the students will place them in a tub and bring them back to the facility. They then take inventory of the remains and prepare them for cleaning and processing.
During processing, the final stage of the decomposition study process, the remains are properly cleaned, processed and studied. Students come in for 2 hours a week to wash, label, inventory and store the remains in a box to join the skeletal collection.
The skeletal collection is a very important aspect of the facility, and the most overlooked. The study of skeletal remains is truly where forensic anthropology comes into play, as they can read the entire history of a person based on their skeleton.
Anthropologists can tell how active a person was based on if their muscle attachments are big or small; if they had arthritis, fractured or broken bones, etc. The collection is not only there for professors to use in class as real-life examples when teaching, but also for countless research studies.
Many researchers have come to WCU to study our collection, from as far as Australia.
Most of the research collected at the decomposition facility is simply curated and stored for future use; unless needed for a specific research study.
When the University of Tennessee opened its body farm in the 80s, they received a lot of backlash from the community about it being disgusting and unethical.
There were a lot of worries when our decomposition facility opened here. The university and participants wanted to make sure that the facility and its donors would be safe and decided to make its location a secret.
“I’m not honestly a big fan of keeping it a secret. I think that it all plays into this psyche and this assumption that what we do is secret, that we’ve got a bunch to hide, but we don’t. I would rather have the university be like ‘This is a really super cool resource, let’s protect it!’,” Zejdlik said.
Though the facility will always have limitations for visitors for the sake of the donors, Zejdlick hopes that in the near future, more of the campus community can be involved in the research, especially the biology and geo-science related departments.
“I’ve been spending a lot of time the last three years, just getting the word out that – it’s okay, ask me questions. Ask us all questions. We can’t necessarily take you out there now, but maybe there are other opportunities to do things here or there. And we’re always happy to talk to people,” Zejdlick said.