The barbed wire gate creaks open, beckoning us into a most unusual paddock. A few steps forward and we all stand still, staring.
The first thing that hits me isn’t the smell (although it’s a close second), it’s the silence. As my eyes dart around, searching for the residents we’ve come to see, the only sound that filters through my ears is that of nature itself. Birds sing out in the trees, branches sway in the breeze and a creek trickles in the distance.
This is the definition of eerie.
Everywhere we look, we’re surrounded by death; it’s seeping into the soil, nourishing the trees, feeding the vultures and the maggots and assaulting our senses. The smell is truly something else. Pungent and putrid, it lingers in the air clawing at the back of my throat. The only thing I can liken it to is the smell of horribly stagnant water mixed with rotten meat. Nice.
Our tour guide doesn’t seem to mind. She’s used to it. Dr Joan Bytheway is one of America’s leading forensic anthropologists and the director of the Southeast Texas Applied Forensic Science Facility, also known as The Body Farm.
Out here among the trees and the decaying corpses is Dr Bytheway’s unique outdoor lab – a place where she can hear the silent stories of the dead.
“There’s more than just bones to a person,” Dr Bytheway tells us.
“They had an identity, they had a history so I want to expose that. I want to be able to give them a voice.”
Petite, short hair and stylish (even in scrubs), Dr Bytheway looks like the real life version of the lead character Dr Kay Scarpetta in Patricia Cornwall’s best-selling novels.
The term ‘body farm’ was in fact made famous through the author’s 1994 book which was based on the world’s first facility of its kind in Tennessee. It was set up in 1981 by Dr Bill Bass, a state forensic anthropologist who had an epiphany after he embarrassingly misjudged the time of death of a body by almost 113 years. He realised right there and then that he needed to learn a whole lot more about death.
Dr Bass started collecting bodies donated to science, laying them out in fields and watching as nature took over. His studies in human decomposition were a game changer in death investigation and the idea soon caught on.
There are now six human decomposition facilities throughout the US, including Dr Bytheway’s farm which opened in 2009.
“We’re looking at forensic science and the human body, how we can solve crime… using the human body as a bit of evidence.”
“There’s a lot of evidence you can glean from the body itself, the chemistry of the body, the physical characteristics of the body through decomposition, looking at the skeleton itself, getting DNA from the body – those are all bits of evidence,” Dr Bytheway says.
There’s a unique kind of nervousness that comes with visiting a place where the dead outnumber the living; apprehension over what death looks like, smells like, how I’ll react and most importantly – did I eat too much breakfast?
But upon seeing the first row of bodies, that fear of the unknown gradually melts away. In its place, intrigue takes over.
At the Texas facility there are over 100 corpses placed in scenarios similar to what police might find at crime scenes. As part of their research, Dr Bytheway and her team have buried bodies in shallow graves, deep graves, wrapped them in plastic, locked them in car boots and set them on fire.
The insights gained from these experiments has helped solve numerous murder mysteries in the region – the most disturbing of which was the ‘body in a trashcan’ case.
A trashcan had been set alight incinerating the body of 46-year-old mother of three Deborah Applegate. With the burnt bones resembling tiny wood chips, Dr Bytheway and Detective Echols searched on their hands and knees recovering as much of the skeleton as possible.
“Out in the woods, a small stick or twig can look like a bone. So I’d literally go, ‘Hey doc, what’s this?’ And she’d look at it go, ‘stick, throw it down’,” he recalls.
“You can’t get that kind of knowledge unless she’s there.”
Dr Bytheway carefully reconstructed the skull and found a missing triangular piece which was untouched by flames. It told her that the victim had been bludgeoned and her body left to decompose before being set on fire.
The breakthrough led police straight to the murder weapon – a hammer – inside the home of their suspect 26-year-old Robert Ellis Hinton.
In a post-conviction confession, he admitted to beating Applegate with a hammer, slitting her throat and stuffing her into a garbage can for a month before burning her body.
Intrigued by the unusual burn pattern noted on the victim’s skeleton, Dr Bytheway recreated the crime at her facility to see if her results would corroborate the perpetrator’s admission. It did and the data is now being used in similar homicide investigations.
Inside the body farm, each row of corpses is used for a different experiment. The possibilities are never-ending. At one point we stumble across a dead man submerged in a bath. He’s bloated, his flesh is a strange, green colour and his aroma is beyond anything I’ve ever whiffed before.
Before leaving on this strange journey, a detective I know gave me some advice about coping with the odour. “Don’t mask the smell with Vicks under your nose,” he said. “You’ll never be able to use it again. I still can’t stand the smell of eucalyptus.”
It’s all to do with smell association – specifically the olfactory memory, Australian Professor Shari Forbes explains to us over dinner one night. Not that the stench phases her – Australia’s very own “Queen of the Dead” is a world expert in death odours.
At 39, Professor Forbes has spent her career studying the chemical processes that occur in human decay and her research is now helping better train cadaver-detection dogs.
A self-proclaimed nerd who always knew she wanted to be a forensic scientist, Professor Forbes chose the dead over the living when she was offered a project at a cemetery in her final year of university.
“Not surprisingly, nobody else wanted the project and it was to look at why bodies were not decomposing in a cemetery in Australia,” she tells us.
“For me it was a real puzzle and that’s what we do in forensic science, we try to solve puzzles,” Professor Forbes says.
Her endless fascination with death eventually led Professor Forbes to open Australia’s first and only body farm at a secret bush site near Sydney’s Blue Mountains. The Australian Facility for Taphonomic Experimental Research (AFTER) is the first facility of its kind outside the US.
“We help the dead not the living, but we are still giving back to the community in a very meaningful way,” Professor Forbes explains.
One year into opening, the Body Farm is already revolutionising death investigation in Australia. Police now have the opportunity to recreate murder scenes or missing persons scenarios.
“We have already assisted police with ongoing investigations, we’re providing better estimates of time since death and we’re enhancing our methods for searching and locating remains,” Professor Forbes explains.
Most recently Professor Forbes was spotted ducking under the crime scene tape in Sydney’s Royal National Park following the devastating discovery of 20-year-old Matthew Leveson’s remains. The forensic scientist is often called upon during searches and investigations to advise police on possible burial locations and conditions.
“Information about identifying the victim as well – will their fingerprints still be detectable, are their teeth surviving to that degree and that’s the kind of information that we help with.”
Up until the opening of AFTER, forensic investigators were forced to rely on data from American body farms or experiments conducted on pig cadavers to estimate time since death – a critical question in any murder investigation and something which is very much affected by the environment.
This is why America’s six body farms are situated in varying climates. Our Australian facility is based on the set up of Dr Bytheway’s in Texas. Having visited it numerous times for research, Professor Forbes returned with 60 Minutes to show us the similarities in the two facilities but also the remarkable differences in the rate of decomposition between the US and Australia.
“What we find is that the early stages tend to be similar in terms of the rate of decomposition, but it’s those later stages that really change.”
Professor Forbes says in southeast Texas a fully decomposed body will become skeletonised, but in Australia the dry heat means bodies tend to mummify.
“The temperature impacts the insects that will come, it impacts the scavengers that may show up, it changes the soil and its microbial community, so one factor can have a sort of knock-on effect to all these other variables which also change the rate of decomposition, so there’s just a lot that happens in those environments.”
Exploring the Body Farm ourselves is sensory overload. This is a dead man’s world and it’s not for the squeamish. Gravel laneways are lined with cages containing corpses of varying age and decay. Some have been here so long they’ve disintegrated into piles of bones, camouflaged by dry leaves and vegetation. Others – just months old – are shrouded in brown, leathery skin. On the corner of one alley, a discoloured skull stares up at us through hollowed eye sockets. His or her jaw has dropped open and is locked into a haunting scream.
But it’s the more recent donors which are probably the most confronting for first-time visitors. There’s flesh, facial features, hair, fluid and flies. So many flies.
It might seem grotesque and shocking, but to the scientists and students here this is simply the most logical way of finding out what happens to the body after death. Their research reveals that there are typically four stages of decomposition – fresh, bloat, active decay and mummification.
Professor Forbes says the first real visible change from life to death is the second stage of decomposition – bloat.
“When a body bloats it’s basically a build-up of gases in the torso and that’s the most odorous some people would say. I personally think the third stage – active decay – tends to be more odorous because we have a lot of insect activity, all of the body has started to liquefy, so our solid tissue is now becoming a liquid and there’s just a lot happening in the body at that point.”
None of it sounds pretty and speaking from experience, it doesn’t look or smell that good either. But it is crucial research and what’s really needed now are more facilities in Australia.
With a climate so diverse and varied, it means the data being relied upon even now in NSW is not as accurate as it could be for other regions and states – which can adversely affect local investigations.
“We have remains that are found in the outback which our facility doesn’t mimic, we have remains found in tropical north Queensland and our facility doesn’t mimic that either, so if we’re going to provide accurate data to the police, we have to be recreating this research in the local and natural environment where the police are based.” Professor Forbes says.
Secret talks are underway to find potential locations in the outback and cooler climates like Canberra or Tasmania. Hopefully the idea is embraced by locals as strongly as it was in the Blue Mountains community. In the planning phases of AFTER, nearby residents threw their support behind the facility and their newest neighbours. After all, they’re as quiet as they come.
As we prepare to leave the Body Farm after three days of filming, we’re all relieved to move onto our next assignment. It’s not easy staring death in the face but that’s exactly what Dr Joan Bytheway and Professor Shari Forbes do every day – and they seriously love it.
Both believe the skeleton is a beautiful thing and not much phases them out here among the dead. Although there is one thing.
“I think the worst thing for me is to see a spider in the lab,” Dr Bytheway admits.
“I don’t like spiders.”
But examining a decomposing body?
“It’s all good, yeah” she laughs.
Visiting these two body farms has given us a whole new appreciation for what our police and forensic teams encounter on any given day. The work being done inside these curious research labs is translating directly to the crime scene.
We can thank Dr Bytheway and Professor Forbes for scuttling false alibis, bringing murderers to justice and providing relief to the families of victims.
But they wouldn’t be able to do any of it without the noble act of their donors. In Australia there’s already 30 donors in place at AFTER. Hundreds of people have also signed up ahead of their death.
“That was our biggest surprise,” Professor Forbes admits.
“And what I’ve found is that the Australian public is extremely generous when it comes to donating your body to science.”
It’s an unusual resting place but the bodies here are a gift to the living that will keep on giving long after death.