The researchers who work at body farms admit few people know they exist, and fewer know what happens at the facilities. Colorado is home to one of only a few body farms in the country.
Colorado Mesa University runs the research facility outside Grand Junction that places donated bodies outside in the elements as scientists study the process after death. It's in the name of science.
"We study mostly how human remains decompose," Melissa Connor, who runs the facility and teaches at the university, said. The body field is surrounded by a locked fence. Bodies are voluntarily donated for the body farm’s use.
Researchers study how weather elements affect a body's decomposition.
"We get about eight inches of rain a year and that’s it," Connor said. "The closest other facility like us is at 660 feet (above sea level) and that changes the solar radiation. It changes the atmospheric pressure."
Grand Junction is 4,583 feet above sea level.
Her facility is coming up with a unique way to tell how long a body has been out in the elements, even if it has been there for years. That can help criminal investigators solve a crime or identify a missing person. Narrowing the time of death can help narrow the scope of missing person reports that an investigator must review.
Connor’s team, and scientists at Cornell University, have researched the casings of maggots and discovered different varieties exist at different times of the year. Figuring out which casing is on a body can help researchers narrow a time of death.
"They're actually fairly accurate in telling how long an individual has been dead in addition to what season," she said.
Another body farm run by the University of South Florida is working to help figure out the identity of a man found face down on a Boulder hillside in November 1993.
A hiker found a partially skeletonized man on the side of a hill in Gregory Canyon near the Flatirons. The coroner's office has not been able to tell who he is. At the time, detectives estimated he has been there for up to six months.
Boulder County Deputy Coroner Laurissa Lampi is in charge of his case. The man's body was exhumed on April 18 after Lampi learned of an offer from the University of South Florida to help agencies with cold cases. The university runs its own body farm. Its researchers have been successful in taking what they learned about body decomposition to create facial composites to help identify bodies.
OTHER FACILITIES HELPING SOLVE A BOULDER CASE
Erin Kimmerle, an associate professor at the University of South Florida, is in charge of the body farm in Land O’ Lakes, Florida, outside Tampa.
Kimmerle and her team study the donated bodies to learn more about how bodies break down, both under the sun and underground. The hope is that the research will better help solve crimes. Thanks to the donated bodies, Kimmerle and her team have found just how fast temperature and humidity speed up decomposition. What takes years in a dry air climate can take weeks in areas like Florida.
Researchers learned a valuable lesson about scavengers--how drastically they move bodies, something that could be key to a criminal investigation.
"The vultures will completely turn a body 180 degrees, separate the arms and legs into a sort of spread position,” Kimmerle explains. "It might look like somebody was dumped there in a haphazard way or maybe staged even."
Kimmerle says she discovered a heavy bird sitting on a rib cage could even break bones and collapse a chest cavity.
“The number of injuries can speak to how heinous and atrocious the crime is considered to be, which can determine whether or not it becomes a death penalty case," Kimmerle says.
Kimmerle’s team recently solved a murder case. By using what they learned about how bodies decompose, they created a facial reconstruction image. Someone was able to recognize the victim as a woman named Jane Weaver.
"Our lab has done over 350 cases for law enforcement," Kimmerle says. "We have the strong belief that for every missing person, there's a family missing them,” Kimmerle says.
Abigail Kenney's husband was killed in a car crash. His body was the first to be buried at the farm. She understands some people will find it odd that a wife can take comfort in her husband being at a body farm, but she does.
“I know I might not be the norm, but I have been given such comfort and how everything happened," Kenney says of the research farm.
By donating his body, Kenney says she feels her husband, who was a school principal, is continuing to be an educator even after his death.
And for Kenney, it's helpful to know there's more than her husband's memory that is living on.
"He's had so much impact on other people beyond his death," she says