June 2018

The Nation Reviewed

Australia’s first body farm

By Marina Kamenev

People are dying to get into this forensic research facility

The landscape surrounding Australia’s first body farm looks like a slice of Australiana from a Tom Roberts canvas. Wiry eucalyptus trees reach through the canopy for broad, open skies. The soft, mustard-coloured earth is carpeted with twigs and beige leaves, soggy from the recent rain. The silence here is broken only by the intermittent calls of bellbirds.

There is a string of pale pink tape, reminiscent of a children’s party streamer, attached to some nearby trees. It marks out a six-person mass grave. The bodies inside are slowly decomposing – bones and DNA commingling – ready to be dug up next year and reassembled like jigsaw pieces shaken in a box.

Shari Forbes stands next to the tape, carrying a jaunty yellow umbrella. “We have deep soil here so we use it for burials,” she says of the 5-hectare plot located at Yarramundi, in the lower Blue Mountains west of Sydney. “The ground is soft at the moment because it’s wet, but as somebody who has dug into this ground before, it’s [normally] very hard … We do have an excavator, which we use for the mass graves.”

Forbes is the director of the Australian Facility for Taphonomic Experimental Research (AFTER), more colloquially known as the body farm. The facility is set within a 48-hectare parcel of land belonging to the University of Technology Sydney, where she teaches students about the investigation of human remains.

“It’s actually one of my favourite places,” Forbes confides, her face wreathed by damp blonde curls. At AFTER, forensic analysts from UTS and 14 partner organisations monitor the deterioration of voluntarily donated human remains, either buried or exposed, to aid police and other specialists tasked with recovering corpses and calculating the time since death.

This is the first body farm established outside the United States, and it offers the chance to look at how Australian flora and fauna contribute to the decomposition process. While information from the half dozen US facilities has been helpful in outlining the broad strokes of decay, much data needs to be specific to conditions where bodies are recovered.

Forbes believes the Blue Mountains area is perfect for this. “When people are trying to conceal human remains, they do it in a remote location that is typically bushland.” She also says it’s a good location in which to set up scenarios for locating bodies of missing bushwalkers.

The mass grave marked with pink tape covers an area of about 2 square metres, and has sunk a few inches as the bodies have decomposed. “Once bodies become skeletonised, the bones fall apart and … mingle,” Forbes explains. “The challenge is to identify the victims and make sure that you are dealing with the right bones.”

The data from this grave will be used in relation to war crimes. Forensic archaeologists will see if any useful evidence can be exhumed with the bodies, such as footprints near the burial or marks on items of clothing. Researchers also look for evidence pertaining to the weapon causing death. “We don’t actually shoot the body,” Forbes clarifies, explaining that the NSW Police Force ballistics team shot bullets through the clothing before placing it on the donors. (The facility takes advice from state and federal police when setting up these experiments.)

Behind Forbes, workmen in fluoro vests are pouring a slab of concrete. This area will eventually resemble a building collapse as might occur in an earthquake or bombing, or due to poor construction work. The UTS campus in central Sydney is currently undergoing renovations, and soon Forbes will be piling some of the demolished scraps onto bodies to create the recovery scenario.

This set-up will give Forbes the opportunity to focus on her speciality: the odour of death. “If you ask cadaver dogs to help recover bodies that are recently deceased, they may be searching for a [decomposition] scent that’s not there.” Researchers will monitor the scent of decay and note how long it lingers. The unique bouquet of human remains is absent from the farm today. “If we are working on a particular study right when it’s decomposing, it will smell bad.”

Journalists and non-working visitors must stay near AFTER’s perimeter: a high-security fence that’s wrapped in green gauze, adorned with spiralling razor wire and dotted with security cameras. The facility is accessed by an unremarkable stretch of dirt road with no signage. The obscure location keeps curious outsiders away and protects the donors’ dignity. At body farms in the US, scavengers provide researchers with valuable information. Young squirrels, for example, are drawn to bones that are dry, so squirrel teeth marks indicate that a body has been exposed for more than a year. While scientists in Australia would learn from the behaviour of scavengers such as goannas or wedge-tailed eagles, the bodies here are protected from such activity. “Under our licence we need to be able to account for our donors’ remains at all times,” Forbes says. She is also concerned about her neighbours, whom she regards as very generous for allowing the facility to exist. “We would not want birds taking the remains and dropping them on properties in the vicinity.”

The bodies are, however, exposed to invertebrate scavengers – insects – that help determine the moment when death occurred. Typically, flies are first on the scene of an exposed body, laying eggs that hatch into maggots. The swarming maggots thermoregulate, and forensic entomologists use their temperature along with knowledge of the particular species as the variables in a formula to work out the minimum time since death.

“When we search from the air for missing remains, we often use thermal imaging … People assume that the thermal signature is coming from the body but it’s actually coming from the maggot masses,” Forbes says.

She strolls past a dull-hued Subaru Liberty, which one of her colleagues gave to the facility. Forbes and her team are waiting to obtain two more vehicles before they can start placing bodies in the cabins. “We need to understand how composition varies in an enclosed area. It’s almost like a glasshouse!”

Elsewhere, nestled among the eucalypts, is a small mound of earth at a freshly dug grave. The soil will soon settle to ground level and the area will be used as a kind of forensic treasure hunt. “If you can’t see it, police will have to think of other ways to look for it. Would they use drones or perhaps dogs?”

The scenarios here are fairly straightforward, but Forbes has seen some elaborate schemes emerging from facilities in the United States. “There was one where the body was burned and placed in water, and moved again, and put in a barrel and then burned again. Only a criminal mind could come up with something like that.”

AFTER is currently home to 46 bodies, but more than 500 potential donors are on a waitlist. Those who choose to leave their bodies with AFTER – most of whom are older people – can make requests, which Forbes will try to accommodate. These often include outfit choices and body placement.

“We often have donors who say, ‘The reason I’m donating my body is because I don’t want to be in a grave in a cemetery. So I’d prefer not to be in a grave out here.’”

There are also people who get creative. Forbes describes how one man wants to be buried with half of his body in water and the other half on an ant hill.

“We don’t have water here [apart] from the obvious puddles,” Forbes says, glancing at the surrounding bushland.

“I’ve told him it’s very much dependent on the weather here at the time.”

Marina Kamenev

Marina Kamenev is a Sydney-based journalist.

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