Tuesday, November 29, 2005

And now, from the "Yet another valuable contribution from my home state...but it gives me the willies" files and Yahoo! News...

Sudiegirl sez: Ya know, my home state has contributed to the American cultural landscape in many ways...Grant Wood, Donna Reed, John Wayne, the Everly Brothers, Johnny Carson, and even Tom Arnold...but I gotta admit, this body farm thing is a new one on me. Although I think Roseanne (you remember her, right?)might like the idea of Tom's body rotting in a cornfield somewhere in Iowa, you can see why some folks might view it with a suspicious eye. Read on, and you know what I'm a-gonna do...

Iowa Prof. Seeks Funding for 'Body Farm'
By TODD DVORAK, Associated Press Writer

Mon Nov 28,11:01 PM ET

Iowa's rich topsoil and climate have nourished some of the nation's most plentiful corn and soybean crops. Tyler O'Brien wants to learn more about their influence on rotting corpses. (Bet he's a lot of fun on dates...maybe he double dates with David Lynch and Stephen King?)

A biological anthropology professor at the University of Northern Iowa, O'Brien envisions turning some prime Iowa pasture into a body farm, where human bodies — buried, stuffed in car trunks or exposed to the elements — can provide scholars and criminalists with new benchmark data on human decay. (I just wonder, though...will criminals pay attention to this research and just find a different place to put dead bodies? Then again, there are only so many options one has.)

"This idea has strong scientific value," O'Brien said. "To answer the question of how long a body has been dead, how long a person has been missing, is critical to criminal investigations." (Heck, anyone who watches "Law and Order" knows that!)

O'Brien is seeking a grant of $400,000 to $500,000 from the National Institute of Justice and other organizations to obtain the land and set up the project. (Wonder what their fundraisers are gonna be like? Bake sales? Benefit concerts? Telethons?)

If approved, the body farm would be just the second in the nation and closely modeled after the work pioneered by O'Brien's mentor, William Bass III, at the University of Tennessee's Forensic Anthropology Center. (Maybe they should amend that to second APPROVED body farm. If crime novels and TV shows are true, there are many body farms that are not sanctioned by any body of government so it's important to be clear on that one.)

Inside a secure, three-acre parcel near the Tennessee campus, Bass and his team have spent more than 30 years painstakingly documenting the decay of bodies buried in coffins and shallow dirt graves, partially submerged in a pond, or exposed to bugs, rodents and hot, muggy summers. (Oh my...I imagine the lucky college student assigned to this area of the campus for work-study. Can you imagine the letters home? "Dear Maw...today was busy. I had to drag three corpses to the lab for study and one had flesh rotting off of it. How's Paw?")

Bass' project and research have been used to teach hundreds of criminalists and served as a centerpiece in a variety of books, including crime writer Patricia Cornwell's 1994 best seller "The Body Farm" and Bass' own memoir, "Death's Acre." (You know, I do approve of this venture no matter how I joke about it. I'm sure it is very helpful in solving crimes and nailing jerks that feel they have to off someone for whatever reason. But there's something about it that just cries out for gallows humor, and by gum, I'm the one who needs to provide it!)

"Before the body farm at Tennessee, there was not much known about the decomposition process," said Mary Manhein, a professor of forensic anthropology at Louisiana State University and a fellow at the American Academy of Forensic Sciences. "I have always felt we need more than one place for a model to better understand the whole process." (I guess that makes sense...but how many folks are going to say, "Not in my backyard"?)

Bass believes there is a need for a second location because it is critical to study decay in different climates. "This is research that is extremely vital to society, science and law enforcement," he said. (Not to mention the freak factor...)

The Midwest offers a flat and open landscape exposed to wind, rain, sun, snow and extreme temperature shifts. It also offers an entirely new spectrum of plants, rodents and bugs, whose life cycle can provide clues to when someone was killed or the body was dumped. (That's true too. Ask any farmer during planting season...)

"Do you have any idea how much heat is generated in the middle of a cornfield in the summer?" O'Brien asked. "It gets awfully hot in there, with little air. It could be very important to know how a micro-climate like that affects decomposition. Different environments can change the rate of decay and tell us new facts about what happened." (Also, it could tell us which corpses make the best fertilizer...oh, that was bad even for me.)

Law enforcement officials also see great value in the research. "What happens to a body over time and why can lead us to more factual conclusions," said Eugene Meyer, director of the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation. (And it's certainly better than poking the body with a stick and saying, "Yep, it's dead. Anybody got any donuts?")

If O'Brien's grant is approved — and he has been rejected before — the site would be owned by the university and secured by a chain-link fence topped with razor wire around a taller privacy fence. (You know, common sense would normally tell you that people wouldn't go in there, but I guess there would be the occasional curious college student or necrophiliac factors...not to mention someone who just wants to "dispose" of "something".)

Despite the mass appeal of TV crime shows like "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation," O'Brien knows persuading the public to see beyond the grim details will be a hard sell. (I dunno...there are lots of CSI fans in Iowa. It might be a hit.)

Bodies used at the farm would be donated by families in the region much the same as they donate a body for medical research. (I could think of lots of people I'd like to donate, but I think the cadaver themselves has to give some kind of pre-death consent or something. Rats...)

At the Tennessee body farm, more than 100 people have filed donor applications this year, up from last year, and more than 600 are on file from the past 10 years, according to Dr. Richard Jantz, director of the university's Forensic Anthropology Center. (Now how do you explain that to your surviving spouse? "Honey, I've decided to just donate my corpse to the body farm so scientists can study my rotting flesh. Oh, and I'd also like a memorial fund to the Moose Lodge." Not an easy task.)

Roy Crawford, a 54-year-old mining engineer and part-time forensic engineer from Whitesburg, Ky., decided to donate his body in 1993 after overcoming a bout with cancer. (Is his wife cool with this? I guess she'd have to be, huh?)

As someone who has attended classes at the body farm, Crawford views his commitment as a moral duty on par with donating his body for medical research.
"I like the idea that one day research done on my body might be used to catch a murderer," he said. He knows some might think such use of bodies to be disrespectful. (Gee, like murder ISN'T disrespectful? At least this way, he has some say in it. Most people don't.)

"But I look at it as a scientific laboratory in nature, and I think nature is beautiful," he said. "The idea of being propped up against a tree to decompose sounds a whole lot better than being locked in a box and preserved under the ground." (Either way, the worms crawl in, the worms crawl out, they're playing pinochle on your snout...sorry, but true!)
On the Net:

University of Northern Iowa Department of Sociology, Anthropology and Criminology: http://fp.uni.edu/sac/index.htm

University of Tennessee Forensic Anthropology Center: http://web.utk.edu/anthrop/FACcenter.html

Sudiegirl's final word:

In spite of my jokes, this is really a cool idea. Now let's see how well it goes over with the Iowegians...

Sudiegirl the not-dead.