Inside a 'body farm': Studying decomposed bodies to better solve crimes

Posted at 2:06 PM, Oct 29, 2018

About an hour north of Tampa, Florida is a plain field, surrounded by a fence. It may look like ordinary land, but the fenced-in area is a burial lot for bodies donated in the name of science.

The area is known as a body farm, an outdoor research facility where scientists study how a body decomposes in hopes to use that research to better solve crimes.

Erin Kimmerle, an associate processor at the University of South Florida, is in charge of the body farm in Land O’ Lakes, Florida.  

Kimmerle and her team study the donated bodies to learn more on how bodies break down, both under the sun and underground.

Abigail Kenney's husband, who was killed in a car crash, was the first body to be buried at the farm. For her, the place brings her comfort.

“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.

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 learn 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 can 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 will 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. It was later determined Weaver’s boyfriend had fatally shot her before dumping her body.

"I mean, our lab has done over 350 cases for law enforcement," Kimmerle says.

The Florida body farm is one of eight around the country. Each farm studies different climates--from high in the arid climate of western Colorado to strong humid heat in Florida—in hopes of helping to solve crimes and bring families closure.

"We have the strong belief that for every missing person, there's a family missing them,” Kimmerle says.

And for Kenney, it's comforting 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.