9 | Death’s Acre: Inside the Legendary Forensic Lab the Body Farm Where the Dead Do Tell Tales by Dr. Bill Bass and Jon Jefferson

“Anthropologists and insects can reveal the truth about a crime, but they can’t force the wheels of bureaucracy to turn, and they can’t guarantee that justice will be done. All they can do is serve as a voice for victims, and hope that voice is heard.”

This book is a fascinating read– a much more informative read than Mary H. Manheim’s The Bone Lady and one that reads more seriously and with more gravity than Mary Roach’s Stiff. Mostly because Manheim writes about her career in before the 1990s, before the advent of DNA technologies while Bass is writing about his career which spanned the 1940s until the 2000s. Intertwined with case reviews of some of the biggest cases he has ever worked on and accomplishments as the department head of Anthropology at the University of Tennessee (UT) at Knoxville, Bass writes about his personal life, the deaths of his first and second wives to cancers and how he threw himself into his work to seek solace.

I’ve always wondered why people pursue such professions– homicide investigators, coroners, forensic entomologists/anthropologists/etc. It’s because they believe in a greater mission and are able to look past the literal-ness of their work. By solving crimes, they are keeping their communities safer, pioneering the use of new scientific methods and testing and cataloguing information to help solve other cases. There’s no shortage of colorful description about how Bass’ colleague, a leading fingerprint expert, asks Bass to cut off a hand of a murdered prostitute’s corpse, or how Bass himself reviews hundreds of crime scene photos of three dead and bloated bodies of a man, his wife, and their four year old daughter, left to rot in a mountain cabin for a month, as he looks for maggot pupae in order to determine the time of death. The reality of the job is sickening yet incredible- it is because of the diligence and dedication that people like Bass have to their jobs that crimes are solved, criminals are successfully prosecuted and victims receive some justice.

One of the most remarkable parts of Bass’ legacy is the creation of the Body Farm, an anthropological research facility at UT literally borne out of genuine curiosity with how to answer questions like: how long does a body take to decay outside, in the dead of winter? In the heat of the summer? What about in water? What kinds of residue is left in the soil? How can you tell if a body has been moved after the death? However macabre these questions are, there’s no doubt how critically forensic evidence needs to be investigated in order to shed light on the scene, without the murderer or the victim saying what happened. The level of scientific expertise developed due to the research efforts at the Body Farm is amazing, so much so that federal, state and local law enforcement agencies have consulted with Bass and his proteges on hundreds of cases. Bass really exemplifies what it means to bridge his academic work as a professor of anthropology to the “real world,” frequently going to crime scenes to collect and examine evidence. He doesn’t skimp on the explaining the science (in layman terms) of what happens when bodies are burned– as the body looses water, muscles and tendons clamp up and the body begins to curl. By examining the structure, color and density of the bone, one can tell how hot the fire was, the position of the body as it burned, but it can also reveal, though burned, if there were peri or post mortem wounds to the bone– perhaps a gunshot entry/exit wound or blade mark.

To me, crime fiction in books and television seems perverse in a way– many times what happens in fiction is inspired by something happening in real life. “Good” crime show producers and writers consult real world experts- forensics scientists, FBI agents, police, in order to make something as “real” and “believable” as possible. I personally don’t read or watch anything to do with crime fiction for the reason I don’t think someone’s lived and post-mortem experience should be fictionalized to create a sensational story, with fake blood and the like. But reading Bass’ book and learning about the very “down to earth” research conducted at the Body Farm seems less and almost not at all disturbing as the research is only necessitated because of real crime.

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