Forensic scientists are working with the British military to open the United Kingdom’s first body farm — a site where researchers will be able to study the decomposition of human remains.
Details are not yet finalized, but the plans are at an advanced stage: project leaders hope this year to open the farm, also known as a forensic cemetery or taphonomy facility, after the discipline devoted to the study of decay and fossilization.
Such sites — which have existed for decades in the United States and more recently in countries including the Netherlands and Australia — generate data on tissue and bone degradation under controlled conditions, along with chemical changes in the soil, air and water around a corpse, to help criminal and forensic investigators. Researchers argue that they provide information crucial to criminal investigations that can’t be obtained from equivalent animal studies, but critics say that they are gruesome and that their value to research is unproven.
In the United Kingdom, a site has been selected and work has started, according to documents obtained by Nature under the Freedom of Information Act. The documents don’t reveal the exact site, but suggest that the facility is being developed on land owned by the Ministry of Defence.
The farms take donated bodies and bury them or leave them on the surface to decompose. Researchers can also set up and study specific circumstances, for example by placing bodies in water or in a vehicle in the farm. The world’s first and most famous farm opened in 1981 in Knoxville, Tennessee; at least six more sites have opened in the United States. In recent years, researchers have set up body farms in Australia and the Netherlands, and Canada will open one this year.
The UK project, which many forensic scientists say is overdue, is led by forensic anthropologist Anna Williams at the University of Huddersfield, a long-standing advocate of such a facility. She says it is essential to stop British forensic and related research from being left behind. A report from a House of Lords’ science and technology committee earlier this week lamented the poor state of UK forensic science and called for investment and a more strategic approach to research.