In Search of Inspiration (and Accuracy), a Student of Murder Pays a Visit to the Body Farm

Ernest Hemingway once said that an author must know the entire iceberg to write about only the tip. This has become a basic tenet among suspense novelists: Learn everything about an important topic but include just the fraction of details relevant to the story.

I wonder whether even Hemingway might have thought I was taking things a step too far when, on a crisp fall morning, I paid a visit to the Body Farm. Established by the forensic anthropologist Bill Bass at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville in the early 1980s, the Body Farm — officially known as the Anthropology Research Facility — consists of nearly three wooded acres surrounded by razor-wire fence and containing more than a thousand decomposing human corpses. Its mission: to determine the factors that affect body decomposition, enable the identification of skeletal remains and help determine time since death. Until the Body Farm opened, experts relied on pig models to estimate when death occurred — within a margin of error encompassing years. Imagine asking a suspect to provide an alibi for 1965-67! Not exactly the kind of question that leads to a riveting police procedural.

Bass, called on to determine the cause of and time since death in a major case, realized the need for more rigorous modern methods. He decided to reconstruct the crime scene using a donated body and observe what happened as it decomposed. With that, the Body Farm was born.

In the beginning, the Body Farm wasn’t known as the Body Farm. In the remarkable way that life and fiction can influence each other, the place burst into public consciousness and earned its macabre nickname with the publication of Patricia Cornwell’s thriller by the same name in 1994. A facility dedicated to studying human decomposition? Where people can donate their own bodies to be hanged from trees, submerged in ponds, burned in pits or buried in shallow graves — all to advance forensic science? Readers were fascinated. I was fascinated.

Which is how I ended up here, conducting research for my latest thriller while mostly hoping I wouldn’t vomit. I’ve always been drawn to suspense novels that inform as well as entertain, so-called plausible fiction, in which the crime may be the author’s fabrication but the investigators use as much real-world procedure as possible — apart from, say, the standard six-month wait for DNA test results. Unlike many other thriller writers, however, I have no expertise as a former lawyer, crime-beat reporter or doctor to draw on. I wrote my first book at 17 and hit the best-seller list at 28. I know fiction, but the plausible part requires due diligence.

Hence my cold call to the Body Farm, where the first thing I learned is that the facility doesn’t offer tours. If it did, Lee Jantz, the associate director, told me, the staff would never get any work done. The facility does assist with research, however, and I had some questions. How do you calculate time of death from skeletal remains? Could fire be used to obscure or prevent the identification of a body? Is there a plausible scenario in which one person’s bones could legitimately be mistaken for another’s? In suspense novels, it’s vital to get such details right. No one wants to read about a dumb expert. Yet everyone loves a clever villain who’s one step ahead of his pursuers.

I’d never viewed a body outside the sanitized world of a funeral home. Now, I was about to see hundreds: corpses in various poses on the ground, skeletons dangling from trees, body parts protruding from the earth. What’s it like to walk among the dead? The first order of business was not to stray off the path. This is a scientific facility, and you mustn’t contaminate the site. The second thing I learned was to breathe through my mouth. Even on a cool day in October, the smell … well, this was death: organic and 100 percent genuine. Gradually, I came to understand that the Body Farm is more than a macabre outdoor lab; it’s hallowed ground.

Most bodies that come to the facility are volunteers, who register before their demise. However, a volunteer’s family can’t very well ship their loved one’s remains via the post office. Instead, a funeral home assists in transport. (If you die within 100 miles of Knoxville, the Body Farm will pick up your corpse free of charge.) Upon receipt, the staff unboxes the body and prepares it for research. This is serious work, handled with the utmost respect. One afternoon, Jantz told me, she personally oversaw the arrival of an elderly woman. Tucked inside the box next to the corpse was a collection of travel-size soaps, along with a note. Our mother always insisted on traveling with soap, the note read. We used to tease her that hotels provided such basic needs, but she always said, “You never know.” So for this, our mother’s final journey, we wanted to make sure she’d have everything she needed.

By the end of my visit, I knew the difference between official cremation and “redneck” cremation. The first involves a crematory burning at 1,400 to 1,800 degrees. The second involves a trash barrel and gasoline. Neither method can fool a well-trained forensic anthropologist, who can reach into a box of burned bones — most of which look like rock-size pieces of off-white coral — and identify the sex, age and/or occupation of the human being to whom they once belonged.

I learned that the pieces of an infant’s skull feel like rose petals in the palm of your hand. I witnessed firsthand the power of facial reconstruction, which gives dignity and identity back to the dead. And I saw boxes and boxes of bones neatly labeled for use in future studies. Changes in DNA can take generations to occur. By contrast, our skeletons can show widespread changes in as short as 10 years — from the bony protrusions now increasingly common on the back of our skulls (“text necks,” some are calling them) to our increasingly low bone density as we transition from manual labor to office work.

I had originally planned on having the body in my novel burned in order to make identifying it impossible. But after discovering that such an act would never fool a forensic anthropologist, I spent the next two days frantically trying to come up with a new ploy. I finally hit on a possible scenario during my last afternoon. I ran my idea by Jantz. She told me she thought it was deeply disturbing but also brutally effective. I went home and got to work.

Lisa Gardner, the winner of the International Thriller Writers best hardcover novel for “The Neighbor,” has used her research at the Body Farm for several books, including “Love You More.” Her latest novel is “Never Tell.”

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