There is an article on the BBC news website today regarding the desire and need for a ‘body farm’ to be established in this country, like the ones that are in America (and apparently one in Australia too!). If you don’t know, a body farm (or I what I think is officially known as an Anthropological Research Centre, or similar) is the term used for a site where taphonomy (the science looking at decomposition among other processes that happen after death) is studied in people who have donated their bodies to science and it helps us understand decomposition in the many different scenarios that can occur. This is valuable from the standpoint that we have a very particular set of environmental circumstances in the UK which could hamper our understanding of how bodies would decompose and therefore any insight into real life examples.
Although the UK does not have a body farm as such, there are researchers who use (as far as I have read and understood) pig carcasses to a similar aim of study. During my own studies at university, during my masters course, we were taken to a mock crime scene where we were asked to investigate an area of woodland using the knowledge and skills we had learnt during our year studying forensic archaeological science. Our lecturer had set up some grave sites, with plastic skeletons and some other property like watches and jewellery. I remember at the time being disappointed that I had not picked up sooner that she had also planted some insect casings around the fake skeletons to mimic what would have remained if they had decomposed in situ. Then again, I can’t help but think if the ‘crime scene’ had been a little more realistic, or even if they hadn’t actually tried to recreate a crime scene at all but shown us some real examples of the types of things a forensic archaeologist might see then this could have been far more valuable.
I do understand that there are a great number of laws and regulations in this country around what happens to the deceased and their tissues, and this is all for very good reasons I cannot question in the slightest. My understanding of the legal side is limited at current, but I hope to learn a great deal more about how they impact the mortuary once I am working there. However, if it is the legal side which is preventing a body farm being introduced to the UK I would be very interested to know the legal context of this in the countries that already have them.
I also completely understand the reservations around the value of such experiments using human cadavers when the factors impacting decomposition (including, but not limited to, lifestyle, diet, illness, conditions of death, weather, temperature, insects present, other animals present…) can be so incredibly varied and wide ranging. However, I would debate with anyone to find a science that didn’t start out without understanding the full scope of what was being examined or what was needed to be examined in order to understand the science fully. Surely this just means that the study of such things is in its infancy and does not undermine the need for the study to take place in the first place.
Alongside this, of course I can see how having a place where you know this kind of research is happening might be a little out of favour. Especially if it’s on your doorstep! Not everyone is fascinated with these things and most would rather not think about it at all.
As you can probably tell, I would be a full supporter of a body farm being instated in the UK and would be very interested to see how and if this progresses any further. I’d also be very interested to know your thoughts on body farms and how you feel about this.
On a lighter note, I’ve been sketching away since I sat and designed my little logo for this blog and I thought you might enjoy a couple of cat skulls I came up with at the same time. I’ve been looking at adopting another cat and this led to me looking at cat skulls on the internet, that’s how my brain works!