How Do Bodies Decompose? Colorado Laboratory Offers Up the Answers

July 7, 2015

Typical scene in crime drama on television:

[Body found in a shallow grave on the outskirts of a newly constructed neighborhood]

Police Officer: When did the victim die?

Medical Examiner: Based on the decomposition, my estimate is three weeks.

Have you ever wondered how they know that? This is made possible by the science of forensic anthropology and what are called Outdoor Forensic Laboratories (OFLs), often labeled by the media as ‘body farms.’ An OFL is an outdoor area that contains cadavers in various states of decomposition. The first OFL was created in 1981 by Dr. William Bass, a forensic anthropologist, through cooperation with the University of Tennessee.

OFLs are designed to study human decomposition and educate future forensic anthropologists and other medical and law enforcement professionals. Perhaps surprisingly, not all remains decompose at the same rate. Decomposition is determined by regional differences in climate, soil composition, and other factors. For this reason there are six OFLs located throughout the country, each one tied to a university, with plans for more in the future.

Colorado Mesa University in Grand Junction is one of those lucky universities. Officially named the Forensic Investigation Research Station (FIRS), it is the newest and highest elevation OFL thus far. The FIRS provides researchers with information regarding western Colorado’s unique environmental impact on human remains, in addition to teaching a new crop of students interested in forensic anthropology.

The FIRS is an up-to-date teaching facility that houses a classroom and morgue with state-of-the-art equipment. Directly outside the walls is where students learn first-hand how to identify a potential victim’s age, ethnicity, sex, and other revealing clues. A body may be partially buried, found in the trunk of a car, or any number of other real-world scenarios that crime scene investigators need to decode.

Access to the FIRS is limited to a select group of students and professionals. CMU students working toward a minor in forensic anthropology, often in tandem with a degree in biology, health sciences or criminal justice use the facility primarily. Law enforcement personnel working at the local, state and federal level as well as medical professionals are given access to the FIRS on a case-by-case basis.

If being a forensic anthropologist sounds like a dream career, give it plenty of thought before applying to any of the six programs. Melissa Connor, Ph.D., Director of the FIRS at CMU, explained that television shows have brought exposure to forensic anthropology. "C.S.I. and Bones created a ‘soft interest’ in the field, and some students are fine until they have to process a crime scene or perform the biology coursework," she said. At that point, Dr. Connor noted, they realize the field may not be a good fit for them.

When the FIRS first opened its doors in 2013, local residents were informed that the facility was accepting donors, and they received their first donation in November of that year. Today, most donations to the program come through word-of-mouth, many by professionals working with people making end-of-life decisions. The regional community, proud of the research and training being done, has supported the facility by inviting Dr. Connor to speak at Rotary clubs, church groups, and perhaps most telling, providing the facility with 24 donations to date.

Colorado Mesa University has also received positive national attention for the creation of the FIRS, and the timing could not have been better. By CMU anticipating an increase in students being attracted to the burgeoning field, many can now look to Colorado as having one of a few universities in the country that offers students real-life preparation for a career in forensic anthropology. Setting Colorado apart even further, CMU is one of two universities that designed the forensic anthropology program specifically for undergraduates, giving them unparalleled access to the OFL. Graduate students at the other four universities are given priority over undergraduate students.

How did Colorado and CMU have the good fortune to join such an elite club? Dana Nunn, Media Relations Director for CMU describes the University’s foresight in creating a program few other universities offered:

“[In 2009], there were only four [OFLs], all located at low altitudes in humid climates, in the world. Our criminal justice program was growing. In order to enhance the educational opportunities available to those students and the apparently growing interest in criminal forensic science, we began pursuing the possibility of opening the first such facility at a higher altitude and in an arid climate. The possibility of being able to offer this unique, hands-on research opportunity to our undergraduate students deserved pursuit.”

Though some may think of it as macabre, the Forensic Investigation Research Station at Colorado Mesa University provides the ability for important research to take place, students to gain experience in an exciting profession, and people to give of themselves for the greater good. We are certainly fortunate to have it here in Colorado.

There are three ways to donate your body to medicine or science:

  • Checking the organ donor box when applying for or renewing a driver’s license. Your organ(s) will be given to someone in need upon your passing.
  • Stating a desire in your will to donate your body to the state’s anatomical board. Your body will be used in medical programs to teach students surgery and anatomy.
  • Stating a desire in your will to donate your body to an Outdoor Forensic Laboratory. Note: Organ donors can also choose to donate their body to an OFL.

If you are interested in learning more about the FIRS at Colorado Mesa University, visit their webpage.