An expert in forensics has condemned the failure of the UK to create a human “body farm” where corpses can be donated for scientific research.
John Cassella, a professor of forensic science at Institute of Technology in Sligo, Ireland, is a passionate advocate for body farms, officially known as ‘human taphonomy facilities’.
The body farm is an outdoor laboratory where scientists can conduct research on the human remains of deceased owners.
How exactly the bodies affect surrounding vegetation as they decompose can answer questions such as how long they’ve been there – possibly providing crucial evidence in murder cases.
Efforts from a group of like-minded forensic experts to establish a body farm in the UK are not ‘making any movement at all’, Professor Cassella told MailOnline, partly due to opposition from members of government and certain academics.
Having a human body farm in the UK could be the difference between putting a murderer behind bars after a successful conviction in court – or letting them kill again, according to Professor Cassella.
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There are already about 10 human body farms in four countries around the world – one each in Canada, Australia and the Netherlands and the rest in the US. This is an example of the Australian one, located near Sydney.
A body farm is a research facility where human remains can be studied. This is the first ‘body farm’ anywhere in the world, located in Knoxville Tennessee.
John Cassella is a Professor of Forensic Science, Institute of Technology Sligo. MailOnline was told by him that criminals must feel ‘just rubbing their hands in glee’ at the failure of the UK to establish a body farm or help with murder cases through new research.
‘It seems to me the criminals must be just rubbing their hands with glee,’ Professor Cassella told MailOnline.
‘I’ve been banging my head so bloody hard for the last 15 years to say “this is scientific endeavour, it’s cutting edge”.
‘If we could do the research to catch one person and stop them from killing other people – what’s one person’s life worth that we save who wasn’t raped, wasn’t murdered wasn’t buried and given no burial of such that their family could grieve?
‘It’s a bit like we know more about space than we do about the deep sea – we know more about the living than we do about the dead.
‘So we’re interested in asking those key questions about the dead and death – and not just for forensic reasons, also for humanitarian reasons and the basic biological sciences.’
While at Staffordshire University, Stoke-on-Trent’s forensics section, Professor Cassella co-authored the 2019 study entitled “Why does the UK require a Human Taphonomy Facility?”This study argues for both scientific and general benefits of a human body farm.
Nature obtained documents under Freedom of Information Act to show that the UK had been selected as a location for a Body Farm in the same year.
The documents didn’t reveal the exact site, but suggested the facility was being developed on land owned by the Ministry of Defence (MoD) – possibly in Wiltshire.
One researcher takes a tour of the Australian only human taphonomy center. This secret bush location outside Sydney houses corpses that are allowed to decay to aid police in solving murder cases.
As part of scientific research, corpses are stacked in metal pens located in remote Texan fields.
The MoD could house the body farm at its site for another entity, such as the university’s forensics department.
MoD land is ideal because it’s’readymade,’ Professor Cassella stated, and safe enough to protect wildlife from ‘idiots’ who would like to take an arm or head.
Professor Cassella refused to speak on behalf of the MoD, however, she said that the plans to establish the UK’s initial body farm are now dead in the water.
MailOnline submitted a Freedom of Information Request to MoD in order for an update. However, it stated that no information within the scope of its request was available.
Knoxville, Tennessee is the home of the University of Tennessee’s body farm. This first one was founded in 1981. Pictured is Dr Richard Jantz, director of the University of Tennesse’s Forensic Anthropology Center, aka the ‘Body Farm’, where dead bodies are studied in various states of decay
There are already about 10 human body farms in four countries around the world – one each in Canada, Australia and the Netherlands and the rest in the US.
Members of the public can register to receive a donor cards in these countries if they wish their body used for research purposes following their death.
But for the UK, establishing a body farm has been opposed by academics, despite the fact that the ‘public had no issue with it’, Professor Cassella told MailOnline.
In fact, the UK public has been in contact with forensic services to inquire about donating their bodies following death.
Cassella stated, “There is no Frankenstein stuff in this place.” ‘It’s fairly straightforward, you put a human being in the ground and you identify experimentally questions that you can answer – “how long’s that person in the ground?You can identify their location, and “how did they get there?”
‘It helps the criminal justice system – that’s you and me, taxpayers, members of the public, the average man on the bus – trying to find out if you’ve got a bad person trying to do bad stuff to your family.’
Multiple factors can affect human decomposition, such as temperature and humidity, insect access, disease prevalence, and lifestyle variations like smoking, weight, body mass, and fat content.
According to Professor Cassella, there are ‘simple questions’ regarding human decomposition that cannot yet be answered in the UK’s courts because the required information has not yet been detailed in journal articles – and, crucially, it’s “Journal articles that the courts have given credence to by way of evidence in court”
He said, “We have new technologies that we can bring to our fore. New questions can we ask to aid courts throughout the UK and around the world.”
The University of Tennessee’s Human Taphonomy Facility is a method to use to detect and monitor chemical, physical and bacterial changes in the rotting body.
Prof Cassella acknowledged this and said, “How can you kill dead people and do such terrible things to them?
“Well, we are not doing that. Their wish is to have their body used for scientific purposes upon death.
“We have been performing anatomical desections for between 200 and 300 years. Before that of course if you did it they’d probably burn you upside down on a stake for being some kind of wicked heretic. We now understand its value.
Currently, there are taphonomy facilities at universities around the UK that use animals as proxies for humans – usually pigs but occasionally sheep, deer and rabbits.
However, as Professor Cassella points out, research involving pigs will not get murderers convicted in the dock.
‘If we don’t move into using humans then all that happens is defence council will just tear a new hole in this and say: “There’s no quality to your research, it’s not on humans it’s on pigs. If you want to go do a murdered pig investigation that’s fine; go give your evidence.”‘
What’s the problem with UK court experts citing journal articles on research results from other countries? It’s because the UK is unique in terms of its vegetation, soil types and climate – all factors that can affect how a body decomposes.
Professor Cassella actually believes that we should have “about 10 of these damn things” because of the large variability across the UK. He cites the differences in soil and vegetation from Scotland down to the South Coast.
UK body farms must be secure to avoid predation by animals and to protect the public. Pictured, cages around the Texas State University facility
These are the barrier walls that block off the Australian body farm. Nature had reported in 2019 that the UK’s first body farm would be located on Ministry of Defence property. However, these plans appear to have come to an abrupt halt.
The majority of opposition to body farming has not come from the general public. It was mainly academics who argued that the statistical statistics will prove insufficient to support the idea.
‘Our counter-argument to that well if you don’t start now in 20 years from now you’ll still only have one body in the ground or none,’ said Professor Cassella.
Ultimately Boris Johnson’s government would have the final say over whether one is finally established in the UK – and why we don’t have one already is still not entirely clear.
Professor Cassella stated that he would love for everyone to ask the question “Why would you not want one of these facilities?”And for everyone to be brave enough to answer the question “Why don’t you have one of these facilities?”
‘If you’re hiding behind the bushes and don’t want one, why is it? Where are the corpses hidden?