Green Burials: Working With the Dead

Story by Tinu Thomas

Photos by Andrés Garcia 

To the average passerby, Freeman Ranch looks like any other farm, a lush field scattered with cattle and two rustic houses overlooking their respective land. Just a few miles from this scenic view, however, is an open field of decomposing human bodies.

The Forensic Anthropology Research Facility (FARF) is located on Freeman Ranch, 30 miles south of Austin. The FARF is host to what is colloquially known as a “body farm,” a research project aimed at studying the decomposition of human bodies after death. Freeman Ranch in San Marcos is one of only ten other FARFs in the world and at its Texan-size of  26 acres, it is the largest known FARF in the world.

Dr. Daniel Wescott, FARF director, oversees Freeman Ranch and the studies conducted there. Wescott said learning about what physically happens to you after death is one way to alleviate the fear and mystery which surround dying.

“One of the most frightening things about death for people is the unknown,” Wescott said, sitting in front of a collection of large, brown boxes labeled with names. “These are boxes that contain the skeletal remains of donated individuals.”

Photo by Andrés Garcia

The stretch of farmland on which the bodies are openly observed is scattered with a plethora of stray vegetation. Amidst the brush, dry weeds and patches of grass, each body is methodically positioned for a specific research purpose.

In their varying stages of decomposition, some bodies are sitting up, others are lying down. Some bodies are clothed, others are undressed. Some are covered with tarps or encapsulated within wire cages, others are open to the elements.

The unencapsulated bodies are referred to as “vulture research projects,” because they are subject to all-natural decomposition including vulture-like animals who feed on the remains.  “We’re interested in a whole variety of things,” Wescott said. “The most common thing here is looking at methods associated with estimating how long a person has been dead.”

 

Photo by Andrés Garcia

The researchers, who are mostly doctoral and research students from Texas State University,  conduct case studies in which certain bodies are subject to very specific decomposition factors. In one case, a body was placed underneath a mattress to study the decomposition of a body if it were hidden under heavy, synthetic elements. These specific studies allow forensic scientists to understand how bodies decompose in various real-life scenarios.

In addition to studying decomposition, the FARF program trains local law enforcement for tasks such as finding and excavating bodies without losing or compromising evidence from the body that could be useful during an autopsy. “We do training courses on a couple different things,” Wescott said. Especially with a buried body, how do you properly excavate a body to retrieve as much information as possible?”

Captain Carol L. Twiss, who serves as Chief Criminal Investigator in Kerr County, said the law enforcement training at FARF has helped solve several murders, including the high-profile murder case of millionaire Allan Kowalski in 2008. “I think anybody who doesn’t work with these folks is stupid,” Twiss said. “We actually solved the murder and arrested ten or 15 people associated with the theft of his property.”

“We brought out a cadaver dog to do a search,” Twiss said. “It was buried under black-stone rock and when we lifted the rock, you could see the remains. We left it alone and had the Texas State University folks come out and they helped us excavate it.”

FARF accepts two kinds of donations: living and next-of-kin. Living donors must pre-register to donate their bodies to the research center prior to death and next-of-kin donors are those donated by family members who make the decision to donate their loved ones after they have died.

The term “body farm” is widely used to describe anthropological research facilities like FARF, but Courtney Siegert, a doctoral student at Texas State University and FARF researcher said the term is colloquial and never used by those who understand the gravity of their work. “I think that the term body farm is not appropriate,” Siegert said. “It makes light of what it is. We don’t farm people. We don’t grow people here.”

Student researchers from Texas State University like Siegert are involved in every aspect of the FARF.

They retrieve the bodies, transport the bodies to the center, physically place them in the field for research until conduct decomposition studies until the bodies are completely skeletal and ready to be scrubbed down and studied further. The process leaves little room for the faint of heart.

Siegert said she learned there was no room for hesitance as soon as her first day at the FARF. During an initial facility tour, she was thrown into a “sink or swim” situation.

“There were a bunch of bodies that had been placed in tarps and there wasn’t a cage on top,” Siegert said. “The person that was teaching us said, ‘Oh no! We have to gather them up so the vultures don’t keep scavenging and taking everything. So we had to gather up bodies on my first day.”

Many students who come to work at the FARF have never encountered a dead body before. Kari Helgeson, a veteran student researcher at the FARF, said despite five years of experience, certain aspects of the job still remain difficult. “Picking up a foot that’s decomposing while maggots are crawling under your hand, that is an experience,” Helgeson said.

Helgeson and Siegert both said there are certain tasks that never get easier, but must be done as part of the daily research procedures. An example Helgeson specifically noted is a technique called maceration. If you search for the definition of maceration without context to FARF, you will likely run into fruit-based recipes. In fact, much of what is done at FARF, from the processes conducted to the tools used, resemble those of a professional kitchen.

“The thing that freaks me out is when I have to take them apart and put them in the Crock-Pot,” Helgeson said. “I mean physical Crock-Pots, like what you use in everyday life. That breaks apart the tissue and we have to pull them apart farther to get the bones out.”

For Siegert, intake, the initial process of picking up and analyzing a body at the lab, is more difficult than actual decomposition research. “People often think that it’s the decomposition aspect that freaks us out more,” Siegert said. “But honestly it’s doing the initial intake that bothers me more because they look like a person still. It looks like somebody you knew.”

Like Helgeson, Siegert said despite her years of experience, she still feels uncomfortable doing certain simple tasks. One mundane process which makes her uncomfortable is taking nail samples from newly donated bodies. “It’s like holding hands with somebody that you love or care about,” Siegert said.

When the researchers are off the field, the bodies are observed through field cameras which are placed over each body. In one particular situation, the cameras captured never before seen footage. “We captured the first-ever footage of a deer eating human remains,” Westcott said.

Deer, well-known herbivores, never displayed carnivorous tendencies prior to the unprecedented footage recorded at the FARF in January 2015. The footage was subject to scientific marvel and inquiry, garnering attention from National Geographic and other renowned scientific journals.

The footage was later explained by a paper published by FARF researchers, Lauren Meckel, Chloe McDaneld and Wescott. The paper proved that deer may gnaw on human bones “possibly to obtain minerals absent in their diet.”

According to FARF researchers, the popularity of the paper peaked public interest in unique burials and since, more people have chosen to donate their bodies to FARF. The increase in donors is also partly due to the facility’s proximity to Austin, where environmental-friendliness is prominent.

Austin residents are now equally obsessed with “green deaths” as they are with green living. “Austin is obsessed with eco-friendly, green burials,” Wescott said. “Also, it’s just a nice peaceful place.”

Despite the emotional aspects of identification research and the unease of physically dismantling a human’s skeleton from the flesh they once inhabited, researchers who work at the FARF are resilient in the work they do.

As Wescott paced gingerly around the field of bodies to avoid stepping on displaced bones, he spoke about his personal burial plans. “Actually, I plan on donating my body to the University of Tennessee and everybody always asks why,” Wescott said. “I’d rather be buried here than Tennessee, but right now, if I were to die on the way home, it’s my students that would have to pick up my body and my students that would have to place me. While that doesn’t bother me, I know it would bother my students.”

 

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One Reply to “Green Burials: Working With the Dead”

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