Australia to open facility to study dead people

At a high-security site in dense bushland just outside Sydney, forensic scientists are preparing for the somewhat gruesome task of opening a "body farm" - a lab for studying dead people.

The facility will be used to study human decomposition and is expected to hold about 10 bodies at a time. They will be scattered around the site and left to rot.

Officially called the Australian Facility for Taphonomic Experimental Research, the facility is scheduled to open next year and will be the first such lab to open outside the United States.

Professor Shari Forbes, a forensic scientist with the University of Technology, Sydney (UTS), will head the facility. She said it will be used to improve body identification in natural disasters and murders, and research estimating time of death or a victim's background.

"The idea is to get a better understanding of the decomposition process in our local environment," Prof Forbes told The Sunday Times.

"It can assist police and forensic scientists with identifying victims of homicide, or missing persons such as a bushwalker who has gone missing, or victims of natural disasters such as tsunamis. It is anything that involves death."

The facility is being set up by UTS, with the co-operation of police, universities and forensic scientists. It will be used by a range of researchers, including entomologists, anthropologists, archaeologists, biologists and chemists.

Inquiries to use the facility are already flowing in from scientists around the world, including New Zealand, South Africa, Britain and Sweden. About 45 people have offered to donate their cadavers, and the remains will later be returned to families for burial or cremation.

The A$1 million (S$1.05 million) facility, which includes an on-site lab, is being funded by a government grant, as well as UTS and collaborating institutions.

The main expense has been on security, particularly high fences and video cameras to keep out larger scavenging animals - as well as live humans.

The bodies will be exposed to the elements, and placed on the ground or in shallow graves. They will be covered by mesh at night to deter larger scavengers, but the covering will allow insects in.

"The bodies are placed in the natural environment," Prof Forbes said. "It is about setting up the type of circumstances that police would encounter and letting nature take its course."

Entomologists will use the facility to research methods of assessing time of death by studying the habits of insects such as flies, which are attracted to the odours of corpses and make their homes there.

Anthropologists will examine the way bones are affected by the weather, while archaeologists will look at the recovery of evidence such as clothing. Biologists will study DNA recovery, while chemists will study isotopes which could help to estimate where people lived or what their diet was.

Prof Forbes plans to study the ways that detection dogs locate bodies. She hopes to identify the chemical compounds released by decomposing bodies which cause odours that are picked up by dogs - findings which could in turn enhance canine detection.

"At the moment, we don't really have a good understanding of what chemicals make up the decomposition odour," she said. "We need to trap the odour and chemically identify it. We can then produce training aids with those key compounds so that dogs can associate their nose to the odour."

Former Sydney police homicide investigator Ben Feszczuk said that improving the understanding of decomposition would help in crime solving. "There are a myriad of things we look at to determine the last movements of the deceased, and it is critical to lock in death to a particular time," he told Fairfax Media.

The first body farm was created in Tennessee about 30 years ago. There are now four other facilities across the US. Prof Forbes said decomposition varies depending on climate and environmental conditions such as temperature, rainfall and humidity, so it is important to set up facilities in different places. She hopes to set up additional facilities in Queensland and the outback.

"Research in Sydney is very helpful for a temperate climate, but it is not so helpful for police in the Northern Territory or the outback," she said.

She admitted that the work may appear to be gruesome and the odours can be strong, but "most people say (the smell) is not as bad as they thought".

So far, her efforts to convince neighbours of the need for the facility have been successful.

"Some people might find it macabre, but most of the local community think it is fascinating and needs to be done. We remember this person was alive, so we treat them with respect."

This article was first published on Apr 19, 2015.
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