They’re Lining Up to Buy the Body Farm

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. {Associated Press}

“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.

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.

“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 microclimate like that affects decomposition. Different environments can change the rate of decay and tell us new facts about what happened.”

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.