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. Pictured is the one in Australia, on the outskirts of Sydney

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.

'Body farms' are research facilities where the decomposition of human remains are studied. Pictured is a human skull at the world's original 'body farm' in Knoxville, Tennessee

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 (pictured) is a professor of forensic science at Institute of Technology in Sligo, Ireland. He told MailOnline that 'criminals must be just rubbing their hands with glee' because of the UK's failure to set up a body farm and help murder cases with new research

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. 

What is a “human body farm”? 

“Body farms” are research centers where human remains can be studied. 

Body farms are used to observe how corpses – donated by the recently decreased – decompose in different conditions – on various soils or on top of various plants, for example.

The different circumstances could mimic crime scenes like fires, submerged in water, or shallow burials of woods. 

Patricia Cornwell used the first term, “body farm”, in a book of the same title to describe Knoxville’s Forensic Anthropology Centre at the University of Tennessee. Since then, the expression has been common usage. 

The official title for body farms, however, is “human taphonomy services”.  

‘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. 

A researcher walks through the only human taphonomy facility in Australia. The secret bush site outside of Sydney hosts corpses are left to decompose to help police solve murders

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.

Corpses are lined up in the metal pens in the remote Texan field as part of scientific research

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. 

The first body farm, established in 1981, is based at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. 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

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


How exactly decomposing human bodies affect surrounding soil and plants is still uncertain, as Professor Cassella explained. 

If a body were to be dumped by a criminal, for the first couple of years there might be a hump of soil in the middle of a field – a clear indicator of a corpse.  

‘So that’s never an issue – you could find that body, you could use geophysics, you could use aerial drones,’ he said.

Three or four years later, however, the soil will have settled, and so the clues may come from the plants.

Common misconception is that plants will thrive if they are fed complex organic compounds from the entire human body. However, this may not be true.  

‘The argument is the vegetation doesn’t grow because of the nutrient value of the body, but you get what they call a decomposition island where there is nutrition in your body but there’s also a toxic amount of it,’ said Professor Cassella.

‘If you put too much baby bio on your plants you’ll kill them. It’s the same situation – a certain therapeutic amount helps plants grow; too much will kill them.’

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.” 

‘We don’t even truly understand how bodies when they decompose change the vegetation – do you get plush growth? Is it possible to get more growth from certain species of plants than others? Are you able to grow certain plant species better than others? 

There are many notable enemies to body farms. Sue Black is an anthropologist from Lancaster University.

Professor Black wrote in her book “All that Remains” (2018) that she found the idea both disturbing and grim. She said that when invited to tour one of these locations as a tourist attraction, my anxiety is increased.  

The other criticisms of body farming are the fact that it mainly uses old bodies which may not be representative of the murder victims. 

Human taphonomy facilities are also used to monitor physical, chemical and bacterial changes in rotting bodies, as well as for training archaeologists, anthropologists, police officers and 'human remains detection' dogs (the University of Tennesse's facility, pictured)

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.


The Australian Facility for Taphonomic and Experimental Research (AFTER) is Australia’s only human body farm. It is located in bushland on the outskirts Sydney, near Yarramundi.

The first American human body farm was established in 2016. 

Research at AFTER found that dead bodies move ‘significantly’ during the decomposition process, it was revealed in 2019. 

Alyson, a CQUniversity undergraduate in medical science, worked for AFTER to explain the movement. It could have been caused by the body’s muscles contracting and shrinking, which could aid police investigation.  

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. 

A body farm in the UK would have to be a secure site to prevent predation from animals and keep out the public. Pictured, cages around the Texas State University facility

UK body farms must be secure to avoid predation by animals and to protect the public. Pictured, cages around the Texas State University facility

Pictured are the barriers cordoning off the Australian 'body farm'. In 2019, Nature reported that the first UK body farm would be on Ministry of Defence land - but these plans seem to have stuttered to a halt

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?   


Australian man Frank Scott is on a waiting list to join the Sydney body famr, operated by the University of Technology, Sydney, on a patch of land at the base of the Blue Mountains in the Hawksebury region of New South Wales.

Scott’s remains will remain in science for many years after his death. They will eventually decompose at the experimental bushland laboratory. 

Scott stated, “Without any doubt, it is the most important decision I’ve ever made in my entire life,” 

The purpose of this facility is to increase our knowledge of human decay. This will allow police to identify, locate and retrieve victims of bad luck and misadventure.

Albury native Scott wanted to participate in the experiments, even though he was years away from opening the facility.

He said, “I thought to myself then, having buried both my parents and two children, that I really got very little from either going to these memorial services or standing by a grave.”

“I have never been to those graves.” There has to be better ways.

“I was reading about this facility, and I thought that it would be a good idea.” You can’t just drop a dead body into a ground hole.

Continue reading: One man left his body to rot in a “body farm”