Rotting flesh. Maggots. The stench of decay. These are just a normal parts of the job for Murray K. Marks, the director and curator of the University of Tennessee Forensic Anthropology Facility in Knoxville - commonly known as the "body farm," after the title of a best-selling novel by Patricia Cornwell.
Marks, a UA alumnus, gave a lecture and slideshow, "All That Remains: Forensic Anthropology and the Medicolegal Investigation of Death," to a standing-room-only crowd in Mullins Library last Thursday. Beside images of bloated, maggot-infested corpses and skeletons, Marks explained much of the basics of forensic anthropology, which uses the tools and techniques of physical anthropology to help solve criminal cases.
Unlike crime scene investigators, forensic anthropologists don't dust for fingerprints, collect DNA or analyze blood splatter. Whereas forensic pathologists work with the soft tissues such as flesh and organs, forensic anthropologists deal with human remains that have decayed to the point where the soft tissues are either absent or too badly decomposed to be analyzed.
The field is relatively young; 30 years ago nothing had been formally studied about the rate at which human remains decay.
But forensics is a hot topic - CBS' "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation," in its seventh year, is television's most-watched scripted program and has spawned two successful spin-offs. Other networks have created shows to fill out the genre: NBC's "Crossing Jordan" and Fox's "Bones" are both fictional (although the lead character in "Bones" is based on real-life forensic anthropologist Kathy Reichs), while A&E, CourtTV and the Discovery Channel have true-life (or -death) forensic programs as well.
Most people, however, are curious about the "body farm," a term Marks does not like to use. "I feel it's disrespectful to the individuals who have donated their remains, and to their families."
The wooded, six-acre facility was founded by anthropologist William M. Bass in 1971, and was originally a storage facility for bodies that the pathologists didn't want to store in the morgue.
Since then, it has been the leading forensic research facility in the country, testing new forensic technologies and even training law enforcement personnel including the FBI, crime scene investigators and cadaver dogs.
The researchers, who are mostly anthropology graduate students, usually go on to work at universities or other research facilities, but some go on to do humanitarian work identifying massacre victims in places like Guatemala or Kosovo.
The site holds the remains of some 40 to 50 individuals who have donated their bodies. Some are laid out on the ground, some are buried in concrete or soil at different depths and some are even left in car trunks - all scenarios given to them by law enforcement - in order to study the process of decomposition under different conditions.
However, not every means of decomposition is studied. First, "critters aren't allowed in," and the researchers don't dismember, mutilate or hang any of the bodies.
"I had a student come to me who wanted to study the effects of what different cutting instruments would do to bone," Marks said. "I told her, 'you don't expect me to approve this, do you?'" Instead, he said, "we would use beef ribs or pigs."
Despite the abundant security - a chain-link fence topped by razor wire, a privacy fence and 24-hour camera surveillance - people still try to get inside. "There's a morbid curiosity," Marks said, "especially around this time of year."
Unlike his predecessor, Marks does not allow public tours, except in the case of those who have agreed to donate their remains.
"Some things are sacred and precious," he explains. Every year, Marks has members of the clergy of different faiths come to the facility to perform memorial services for the remains.
After the body has completely decomposed, the bones are all that remain.
More than 200 measurements are taken and entered into a database, then the skeleton is placed with the rest of the facility's 400-strong collection underneath the football stadium.
But even that might not be the final chapter in a donated body's story.
"We have a man who comes to visit his wife every year," Marks said. "We lay her bones out and leave the two of them alone. He usually comes out a little while later, says 'thank you' and leaves. That's fine - whatever he needs to do."