How Does Donating a Body to a Body Farm Work?

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Anyone who has watched a crime show is familiar with this scenario:

Human remains are found. A detective working on the case examines the scene. After examining the body and the surrounding environment, the detective states that the remains are those of a white male aged 35 to 40. The detective further surmises that the body may have been dead for 12 to 15 years. 

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If you are a fan of this genre, this type of scene may be so familiar that you don’t consider the science involved in such investigative work. However, there is such a science, and it’s called forensic anthropology.

Forensic anthropology is defined as “the recovery and examination of human skeletal remains for the medical-legal community. This can include excavation, the creation of a biological profile, or trauma analysis, but does not include trace evidence recovery, DNA testing, Ballistic analysis, or autopsies.”

Like any other scientific study, forensic anthropology requires research. Dead bodies are necessary for research in this discipline, and the University of Tennessee has a research facility where bodies are studied. This section of their facility is called the “body farm.”

Let’s discuss the term “body farm.” We will then give you information from the University of Tennessee Forensic Anthropology Center’s website about who can donate their body for this type of scientific research. Finally, we will give you details on starting the donation process.

What’s a Body Farm?

The Forensic Anthropology Center refers to a part of its research facility as a “body farm.” The body farm contains bodies in a variety of levels of decomposition. Researchers study what happens to the human remains that are left in different environments, such as in shallow pools, inside cars, or out in the open. 

According to the Forensic Anthropology Center, the “dynamic body donation program” is currently comprised of more than 1,000 donors in its collection. The body farm is located on three acres, which means it’s large enough for 150 to 200 people. This facility is utilized by University of Tennessee faculty and students as well as by researchers from around the world.

This type of body donation is gaining in popularity, as journalists and other writers have researched what has been written about the facility often. Over 4,000 people have registered as future donors. The center’s website says that they can’t foresee the need of turning down donations in the foreseeable future. However, they do not advertise or seek donations from individuals. 

According to a New York Times article about the body farm, there are fewer than a dozen similar research sites across the globe. However, the one established in 1981 at the University of Tennessee was the first of its kind. 

Who Can Donate Their Body to a Body Farm?

It seems as if the Forensic Anthropology Center accepts most body donations. However, the facility will only pay for and arrange for transportation to the facility if the body is at a hospital, funeral home, or forensic center less than 100 miles from its location in Knoxville.

According to the website, the Forensic Anthropology Center does not take a body if the individual has an “active multi-drug resistant organism (MDRO) infection or COVID-19 infection at the time of their death.”

The center also does not allow donations from an “individual who has contracted Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV), Hepatitis A, B, or C, tuberculosis (TB), or antibiotic-resistant bacterial infections such as MRSA.” The facility also doesn’t accept donations where the individual has contracted HIV and received a diagnosis of Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome (AIDS) during their lifetime.

While the center is clear that the bodies of individuals with infectious disease will not be accepted, the center may accept their cremated remains for study. However, if you choose this option, contact the Knoxville center before the cremation takes place, as they have specific instructions for the cremation center to follow. 

What Happens When You Donate Your Body to a Body Farm?

Once an unembalmed body is received, it is assigned an identification number and placed in the outdoor laboratory, where the body will decompose naturally. 

The facility will try to honor donors’ wishes who have a special request on the placement of their bodies. For example, you may wish to decompose naturally in a wooded area. If this is your desire, the researchers will try to make that happen. 

Unlike when someone donates their body to science, the family of the deceased does not receive the cremated remains after the study is completed. Instead, the remains are housed for continued and future study at the William M. Bass Donated Skeletal Collection and the Forensic Anthropology Data Bank. 

Additionally, the family of the deceased doesn’t receive any financial compensation for the donation. Instead, they may have the added expense of transporting the body for donation. The research facility encourages out-of-state donors to make official arrangements prior to death, as some states have made it illegal to transport an unembalmed body across state lines. 

How to Donate Your Body to a Body Farm

Those looking for innovative burial alternatives may consider donating their bodies to the body farm in Tennessee. If this is your desire, you need to talk to your family about your wishes. 

Some family members make funeral plans quickly after a person dies. If your body is embalmed before your funeral plans are discovered, your family will not be able to fulfill your wishes. For this reason, share your funeral plans with a variety of people and leave a written document so that it can be quickly discovered after your death. Wills aren’t read immediately upon a person’s death, so leaving instructions in this document may not result in your disposition wishes being fulfilled.

Additionally, the center’s website states, “We will not fight your family for your body. We urge you to convince your family that the donation is what you want at your death.” If you cannot convince your family to fulfill your wishes, there might not be anything you can do about it.

Keep in mind that your next of kin might not want to fulfill your request because transportation to the facility might be expensive. Additionally, your family may wish to keep your remains close, so they can visit your final resting place and reflect on your life. 

With that said, if you and your family agree that donating your body to the body farm in Knoxville is the right thing to do, here are the steps in the process. As you can imagine, there’s quite a bit of paperwork involved to complete the donation process. 

Here are some steps for donating your body to the Forensic Anthropology Center.

Step 1: Read and understand the body donation program policy

This document outlines under what conditions the body won’t be accepted. It also outlines the scenarios under which the center will transport the body after death. 

The document also reminds individuals that no autopsy will be performed on the body. 

You need to read and agree to these guidelines before continuing the pre-donation process.

Step 2: Complete and submit the signed body donation document

The document requires two additional signatures. The facility requires the receipt of the original signed documents. The document does not need to be notarized.

The center then suggests giving multiple copies to your next-of-kin and physician. The leadership also recommends that you seek the advice of an attorney to assure that the document is consistent with other instructions you may have already drafted. 

Step 3: Complete the biological questionnaire

To further aid the researchers’ study, all donors are asked to fill out a confidential questionnaire regarding their health and background. 

Step 4: Send a photograph of yourself to place in your records with the center

Send a frontal view of your face to further aid their study on identifying bodies during and after decomposition.

Step 5: Make your wishes known

The center will give you a donor card to keep in your records. It’s worth noting that you may still be able to donate organs before having your body sent to the forensics research facility. 

Create an End-of-Life Plan

If you wish to donate your body to the Forensic Anthropology Department, you must make your funeral wishes known by creating an end-of-life plan. On the other hand, if you don’t want to donate your body to the body farm, you still need to create an end-of-life plan, because according to the website, your family can contact the facility after your death and make arrangements for the donation.

Cake can help you record your wishes, and you can share your plan with your next of kin. Having an easily-accessed plan is essential. Otherwise, your next of kin may inadvertently give their permission to have your body embalmed, which will prohibit your ability to donate. 


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