On the far outskirts of Sydney behind a razor wire-topped 2.4m steel fence, a world first research experiment on the dead that could help police solve murders is taking place at a secret bushland experimental facility.
More than 70 bodies lie scattered under gum trees in various states of decomposition at the Body Farm.
Deep in the bush away from the fence, bodies lie in large cages on top of the ground, while others are deliberately buried beneath rubble as they decompose.
The fence, comprising 1.8m of steel topped with a 60cm barrel of concertinaed razor wire, surrounds the 4.8hectare site at a classified location at the base of the NSW Blue Mountains.
The bodies, donated to science before death, are referred to as ‘donors’ by the mostly female workers in white Tyvek coveralls, goggles, gloves, hats and industrial-grade boots – who dig them up to study their stages of decay.
When author Jackie Dent visited the fortress-like compound which is under constant CCTV surveillance, she observed the bodies placed in cages to prevent animal scavenging, and smelt the stages of their decomposition.
‘Some are skeletons. Some wear worn cotton T-shirts. Some are naked, their soft tissue now their only cloak,’ she writes in her new book, The Great Dead Body Teachers.
Dent, who says she has been ‘interested in dead bodies’ since she was a child, visited the Body Farm to research her book in pursuit of answering questions like ‘How do scientists tackle the practicalities and ethics of cutting up the dead for research? And who are body donors generally?’
Professor Shari Forbes at Australia’s only ‘body farm’, standing in bushland containing the remains of donors who have left their bodies to science; within the pink tape are 30 human corpses left on the surface to decompose
A 1.8 metre steel fence topped with a further 60 centimetres of concertina wire surrounds the Australian Facility for Taphonomic Experimental Research, the only ‘body farm’ outside the six facilities operating in the United States
Norwegian scientist Dr Maiken Ueland is doing world first studies of the odours emanating from decomposing human remains and is trying to find the ‘holy grail’ of cadaver research, establishing the exact time of death
‘Some jaws are ajar, if screaming. What is uncanny are their colours … red and brown skin blends in with fallen leaves while patches of vibrant green mould growing on their skulls and bones matches the grass and trees.
‘The odour is… near sickening, back to sweet, near sickening.’
One man lying flat on his back in a very decayed state is ‘an unusually beautiful horror. He’s wearing a dark t-shirt and pants. Flies buzz everywhere.
‘The smell is … sort of okay … but it slowly pushes me away 5, 6, 7 metres.’
Dent was visiting the only open-air centre outside the United States for the study of the decomposition of human remains from death until discovery – or taphonomy.
It is known as the Australian Facility for Taphonomic Experimental Research (AFTER), and run by the University of Technology Sydney (UTS), and in 2017, Daily Mail Australia was granted exclusive access to visit and photograph the body farm.
‘The first body farm was in Tennessee in 1981… and these sites revolutionised the science of death,’ Dent writes.
The top secret facility is surrounded by a security fence and CCTV cameras at its classified location at the base of the Blue Mountains and is the first open body decomposition research centre outside the US
The body farm’s scientists at an area within the top secret facility where corpses left on the surface are contained with in large cages to prevent animal scavenging so that their rate of decay can be studied
Her onsite guide was AFTER’s director Dr Jodie Ward, who also co-ordinates the Australian Federal Police’s national DNA program to identify the 750 sets of unknown remains in mortuaries, labs and police stations around Australia, and hopefully match them up with the nation’s 2500 long-term missing people.
‘The body farm has hundreds of donors, but desperately needs more,’ says Dent whose own research for her book centres on what happened to her grandparents’ bodies – likely dissection by medical students – after they donated their bodies to science.
As the journalist turned author toured the body farm twice, she came across the running experiments, including a mass grave excavation of a terrorist bombing scenario with real bodies placed in a mocked-up building collapse.
In this mass grave simulation all eight bodies are ‘slowly skeletonising either above or below ground’ for research by the forensic scientists, biologists, pathologists, chemists, anthropologists, odontologists and police who regularly head for the body farm.
On her second trip, Dent speaks with Norwegian scientist Dr Maiken Ueland. AFTER’s deputy director, who is conducting a novel study, the first of its kind in the world, on the odours coming off donors.
Underneath a pile of concrete, bricks, metal beams and pipes of a ‘faux disaster’ building collapse on the site lie four bodies taken from the UTS freezers and placed at the site 15 days earlier.
‘Hanging over the disaster area are … four tubes which for the past two weeks have been collecting volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in the odours coming off the donors as they decompose,’ Dent writes.
Any part of the Australian Facility for Taphonomic Experimental Research – better known as the ‘body farm’ – marked with pink tape holds human remains left exposed in bushland as part of studies into the decomposition of human remains
Jackie Dent visited the Body Farm during her research into human donation and dissection and her intrigue with her grandparents’ decision to give their bodies to science
Dr Maiken and Alicia, a student studying mummification, use long needles ot take samples of muscle and fat from from the very decayed male donor lying flat on his back.
‘The tissue is then dabbed into small plastic tubes and will be analysed (and) used on a second project, which looks into decomposition over a period of time … the holy grail of time of death.’
Maiken tells Dent her chemistry-based analysis of the make-up of the remains will provide a different method of assessing time of death (TOD) which is ‘a major challenge in a lot of investigations because it is so hard’.
‘There is a lot of work out there but there is still the misconception that time of death is easy,’ Maiken says.
She explains to the author pathologists are ‘really good’ at determining time TOD if the remains are found early, and then within weeks, because entomology on insect invasion of bodies is ‘also quite precise’.
But beyond that it becomes more difficult, and with skeletons, the TOD range can be large.
Part of Maiken’s research on the odour coming from bodies is studying the VOCs emanating from human remains, such as her ‘favourite molecule’, dimethyl trisulfide ‘one of the key volatile compounds released by humans’.
Hundreds of donors from at least four Australian states have signed up to have their remains used at the facility, and Dent reports that she would happily join them writing, ‘I could totally donate my body to this place’.
The chapter of The Great Dead Body Teachers on the body farm is just a part of what some may call a macabre examination of anatomy and dissection.
But Dent’s exploration – part adventure, part detective story – manages to be fascinating rather than sickening, as she charts her family’s history and that of body donation and dismemberment of remains in the name of science.
What inspired her was that her gave their bodies to science when they died which coupled with a fascination with dead bodies from her childhood, sent her on a journey of discovery.
She spends a bit of her book writing about British philosopher Jeremy Bentham, inventor of the panopticon and on Dent’s list of ‘Willingly Dissected People’, who co-wrote his country’s 1832 Anatomy Act and called for medical advancement and the saving of lives through anatomical study.
The book is a journey of self discovery for Dent, as well as an investigation of people’s attitudes to body parts and the like through the ages, into modern times of people having plastic surgery on their private parts.
As Dent discovered, get into a conversation of the topic of dissection and bodies, and you will be surprised what stories people have to tell.
The Great Dead Body Teachers by Jackie Dent, published by Ultimo Press, $36.99
Hundreds of donors from at least four Australian states have signed up to have their remains used at the Body Farm, which is in a secret location near the foothills of the Blue Mountains