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Bones, Bugs, and Batesville

(This is a reprint of an article that appeared in the FAMSA Newsletter, Spring 1999)

by Lisa Carlson

The “Body Farm” it’s been called—the brain-child of Dr. William Bass, a forensic anthropologist—and the only location of its kind in the country. Several out-of-town acres owned by the University of Tennessee (UT) in Knoxville have been set aside to study body decomposition and the relevant stages of insect development.

The bodies there have been donated for scientific study, and—for the most part—will end up in the university’s collection of skeletons that make up a large database of body-types. With a growing collection, forensic experts are charting the differences between male and female, old and young, black and white, tall and short, heavy and thin. The skeletal studies provide a basis for computer whizzes who can then reconstruct likely features as an aid in identification.

In addition to the skeletal studies, the rate of organ degeneration after death—especially the liver—is being studied. Ultimately, that should allow the time of death to be pinpointed with increasing accuracy.

With the unique and valuable knowledge generated by these forensic studies, UT staff are regularly in demand for training police, medical examiners, and FBI investigators. Some graduates have gone on to work in law enforcement.

I first learned of this center from a Popular Science article sent in by John White of the Hawaii society and mentioned it in an earlier newsletter—more out of random curiosity than anything.

But I had a new reason for my interest that prompted me to drag my husband away from a day in our April vacation for a visit.

Barbara Osborne, a woman from Mississippi, had had no reservations about spending $4,000 for Daddy’s “protective” copper casket. The mortuary agreed to hold it while a private family mausoleum was being built. Two months later—when Barbara went to place flowers for Father’s Day—the casket was “stinking to high heaven.” Batesville took four months to supply a new casket. A video of the rotting flesh made during the transfer confirmed Barbara’s worst fears. Barbara now has an $8 million law suit against Batesville for consumer fraud.

When Barbara discovered FAMSA last summer (a friend had seen the U.S. News article), she was relieved to find a sympathetic ear and someone who understood the issues. Sometimes Barbara called me every day, several times a day. “Do you know any experts on decomposition,” she lamented during one such call. Fishing for something—anything—she could research on her own, I casually mentioned the Body Farm.

Barbara is a sharp lady, a real bull-dog and go-getter. So I shouldn’t have been surprised when she called back the next day. She had learned the name of the director and found Dr. Bass off on a summer sabbatical at Tulane University. In the course of their conversation, Dr. Bass mentioned that UT had had a contract with Batesville Caskets for almost eight years. Staff at the forensic center monitored monthly the gases being expelled from the caskets that Batesville had shipped there. Barbara quickly asked him if he would testify in her court case. Dr. Bass agreed.

Barbara excitedly gave me his number at Tulane and urged me to call. Dr. Bass and I had a delightful conversation. I read him some of the casket chapter from my nearly-finished book, and he was quite amused—”You really know what you’re talking about. I’ll have to buy a copy,” he chuckled. “I’ll send you one,” I offered, and made sure his name was on the list for gratis copies when it was finally published last fall.

It was with some shock that Barbara learned at the end of March this year that Dr. Bass was now under retainer for Batesville Casket Co. That probably explained, in part, the protective order that Batesville lawyers had wanted Barbara’s lawyers to sign off on—with that in place, anything that Batesville chose to mark “Confidential” during the trial could not be made public.

But “confidential” was not what Barabara had in mind. Although she has suffered personally—nightmares and a consuming anguish over the unwitting casket choice—she feels strongly that “protective” caskets need to be exposed to the public as consumer fraud. It’s hard not to agree. The Batesville web site states:

The urge to keep our loved ones protected and safe is fundamental to all of us. No wonder so many families are comforted by the ability to protect their loved ones with the Batesville Monoseal protective casket.

It’s going to keep out air, water, and other elements, we’re told. But Batesville doesn’t bother to reveal that—by keeping air out—a sealed casket (in anything but the most frigid weather) becomes a crock-pot that is likely to turn the body into a smelly stew, whether it’s embalmed or not. And Batesville had six caskets at the forensic center to study this stew!

If Batesville were going to ask the court to keep Dr. Bass’s testimony confidential during the trial, then maybe we had to find another way to bring this intriguing Batesville study into the open. Surely not everyone at UT was under retainer to Batesville. A visit to poke around seemed imperative. In fact, it seemed fated, with Knoxville already scheduled as the first stop on our vacation.

I called Dr. Bass, and we chatted about my book. He was impressed, he said, and had been sharing information from it with others. I mentioned that I would be visiting Knoxville in a couple of weeks and would love a tour of the Body Farm. (I didn’t mention Batesville.) Proud of the distinction he’d created for UT with the forensic center, he was eager to oblige. But, alas, he would be on a speaking trip that week. Not to worry, he said. He’d get someone else to show me around. How convenient, I thought, though I was disappointed not to meet this colorful man who always seemed to have a twinkle in his voice.

Dr. Murray Marks has been at UT off and on for nearly ten years. With Dr. Bass on emeritus status, Dr. Marks has taken over most of the classes Dr. Bass used to teach. He also supervises many of the projects that go on at the Body Farm—a name he doesn’t much like, he said, because he doesn’t think it sounds respectful of the work there.

We followed his pickup out of town to the remote location. A high wooden fence blocked any view through the metal-link barrier, topped by a coil of razor wire, that surrounded the wooded acreage. Before we went in, Dr. Marks gave us a history of the center. Only a few of the bodies there are from unclaimed indigents. The majority have been donated for scientific study, he emphasized, and remains can be returned to the family if requested. Most, however, will join the skeletal collection the university is building.

“It’s almost beautiful,” commented Dr. Marks, of the natural events that follow decomposition and the body’s disintegration into the cycle of nature. As the gates swung open and I noticed the spring wild-flowers beside the hillside paths, I had to agree. With most bodies 20 feet apart or so, there was no overwhelming “smell,” though the day was still early. An aroma of pungent”spring earth” was more like it.

We saw 15 or 20 corpses in varying stages of decay above ground as we walked the paths, some covered by tarpaulins to keep off the vultures, though we saw armadillo-like bugs busy at work when we peeked underneath. Others have been buried and will be exhumed at various stages. A marker next to each cadaver noted the date it had been laid out. After only four winter and spring months of Tennessee weather, all that remained of one was the skeleton with clinging fragments of leathery skin, tangled with pieces of disintegrated clothing—a flimsy nightie, perhaps, or a wrapping sheet. In the summer, it takes about two weeks, I was told. As the body decays, volatile fatty acids are released, with the liquid run-off killing the vegetation nearby.

Two had been embalmed. “Only the vascular system is preserved,” pointed out Dr. Marks, the visceral cavity agape and empty, the skin more white and intact than on others we saw. It didn’t look “natural.” The other bodies were becoming a rich sienna brown, an earthen color—”scorched” as the tissues broke down and fatty acids ran off into the soil. (Soil under a decomposing body is another subject of study.)

But the object of my greatest curiosity was at the center of this almost park-like area—the Batesville study. Four cement vaults (painted black to absorb more heat) sat side-by-side on top of the ground. Two tubes ran out of the end of each into a mechanical unit tucked under a small shelter nearby—one outlet marked “liquid,” the other marked “air.” They had cut down some trees to increase the sunlight, said Dr. Marks. I asked what the purpose of the study was. Dr. Marks said that formaldehyde boils at 115 degrees and that he’d understood there were problems at mausoleums in the Southwest.

If Batesville already knew about hot weather mausoleum problems (long before Barbara Osborne bought her protective casket), what would this study show? I wasn’t able to learn much in the way of details because the first graduate student on the project, Brent Goodman, had signed a silence agreement with Batesville at the beginning of the study. I had to glean bits and pieces from others.

Every month for the first few years, data would be collected and sent off to a Batesville laboratory in Indiana. That included a paper tape where a stylus had logged the daily temperature and humidity inside each casket/vault. Liquids were drawn out with a manual pump. Those samples, along with gas samples, were shipped off, too. By the end of three years, there wasn’t much change in the composition of the samples, but the study has continued on for nearly five years more, with liquid and air drawn less frequently. (In contrast, bodies exposed to the elements had finished the decomposition process and were totally dehydrated in a fraction of the time.)

If different caskets and different embalming methods were used, as I’d been told, was there an obvious difference from one to the next? And where did Batesville get the bodies for these four above-ground vaults and another two buried in the hillside. Dr. Marks didn’t know.

When I called Batesville to see what I could learn, I was referred to Joe Weigel, director of public relations for the casket company. He was very cordial and very smooth. He told me that the reason Batesville did the study was to “help Dr. Bass build more knowledge and to help improve our products.” When I asked what they learned, he said the study wasn’t finished— “We don’t have enough information yet.” That was strange, I said, because after the first three years, there apparently was no change in the character of samplings. He insisted that the project wasn’t over. Maybe I’ll call him again in September—five months from now—when it is.

As to where Batesville got the bodies—through “the proper channels for scientific study” was all Weigel would say. Mmmmm. I suspect that’s a new wrinkle for body donors to consider.

If there had been any substantial revelation in this study, it likely would have been put to good use in the industry as soon as it was known. Having read the trade journals for over 12 years, I’ve seen no such news appear.

My guess is that this study merely verified what any cemeterian and most funeral directors already know: Embalmed or not, dead bodies decompose to one degree or another. And a sealed casket creates a smelly stew.

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