Photo by Annie Drabicky
Donors’ bodies aid researchers, law enforcement agencies
When Daniel Wescott dies, that won’t be the end of his story.
Wescott, director of the Forensic Anthropology Center at Texas State, signed up to become a body donor for the original “body farm” at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville.
“Even in their death, donors are able to significantly contribute to society and add to the education of students and to helping solve crime,” Wescott said. “Their bodies will be used for generations to come as well.”
The Forensic Anthropology Research Facility, or “body ranch” as it is sometimes called, is part of the center and has been part of Texas State lore since it opened on a 26-acre tract of Freeman Ranch in 2008. The facility studies the decomposition of human bodies left to scorch under the Texas sun and in a variety of staged conditions.
Wescott said that when the University of Tennessee at Knoxville opened its Anthropological Research Facility in 1981, the research performed there laid the foundation for what became a “universal code” for forensic anthropologists.
The research at Texas State’s facilities has undone the misconception that there are universal rules to be applied to forensic anthropology, Wescott said.
One graduate student, Amy Sears, has devoted her master’s degree research to exploring the problems that arise from applying any “universal code” to forensics.
“What she’s finding so far is that there is just a lot of inaccuracies when you try to do that, and it’s mainly because there is so much variability in how climate affects decomposition,” Wescott said.
He said the work being done at FARF tends to draw passionate responses from people.
“There are people who would say we should be shot and taken out there with the rest of them,” he said. “But if those people had a family member who died in a plane crash, they would want their loved ones identified, and we would be the ones to help them do that.”
When donors’ bodies have fully decomposed at the farm, the bones are cleaned in a vat of soap and water at the Osteology Research and Processing Lab, where they will be studied.
Funding for the research being done at FARF comes primarily from a combination of donations and research grants.
Texas State’s fiscal year 2013 operating budget allocates $5,000 to FACTS, an amount Wescott said would cover the center’s fuel expenses.
Right now, FARF only uses five of its allotted 26 acres on Freeman Ranch. Wescott said he understands that because of the program’s growth, the center is due for an expansion, and he plans to make a request to Provost Gene Bourgeois to fence off all 26 acres.
Wescott said the facility’s waiting list has 145 donors on it and he expects that within the next few years, the program will begin receiving 100 bodies annually.
FACTS Coordinator Sophia Mavroudas has been at Texas State since June 2011. In the year since she started, the number of donations has almost doubled.
“Last year the total was 24 for the year, and so now it’s at 37, and it’s only September,” Mavroudas said.
Her first order of business after becoming coordinator of the program was to oversee the donation of her predecessor’s body.
Mavroudas said she plans to sign up as a body donor but will wait until she trains someone to fill her position.
Her desk is covered with papers, but the animal skull that occupies one corner is a testament to her work and her attitude about it. The skull has been crowned with a pink tiara.
“I’m not a very morbid person,” she said. “But I do like skeletons.”
2013 FACTS workshops
The Forensic Anthropology Research Center at Texas State offers several workshops each year for law enforcement agencies, including:
- Forensic Facial Reconstruction Sculpture, Feb. 4–8, $885. This workshop is designed for technical fine artists who deal with the human face in their work.
- Outdoor Human Remains Recovery, June 3–7, $800. The goal of this workshop is to educate law enforcement and medicolegal professionals on the proper methodology for locating, identifying and recovering buried human remains.
For registration and a complete list of 2013 workshops, contact Sophia Mavroudas at 245-1900 or email@example.com.