Which is how I ended up here, conducting research for my latest thriller while mostly hoping I wouldn’t vomit. I’ve always been drawn to suspense novels that inform as well as entertain, so-called plausible fiction, in which the crime may be the author’s fabrication but the investigators use as much real-world procedure as possible — apart from, say, the standard six-month wait for DNA test results. Unlike many other thriller writers, however, I have no expertise as a former lawyer, crime-beat reporter or doctor to draw on. I wrote my first book at 17 and hit the best-seller list at 28. I know fiction, but the plausible part requires due diligence.
Hence my cold call to the Body Farm, where the first thing I learned is that the facility doesn’t offer tours. If it did, Lee Jantz, the associate director, told me, the staff would never get any work done. The facility does assist with research, however, and I had some questions. How do you calculate time of death from skeletal remains? Could fire be used to obscure or prevent the identification of a body? Is there a plausible scenario in which one person’s bones could legitimately be mistaken for another’s? In suspense novels, it’s vital to get such details right. No one wants to read about a dumb expert. Yet everyone loves a clever villain who’s one step ahead of his pursuers.
I’d never viewed a body outside the sanitized world of a funeral home. Now, I was about to see hundreds: corpses in various poses on the ground, skeletons dangling from trees, body parts protruding from the earth. What’s it like to walk among the dead? The first order of business was not to stray off the path. This is a scientific facility, and you mustn’t contaminate the site. The second thing I learned was to breathe through my mouth. Even on a cool day in October, the smell … well, this was death: organic and 100 percent genuine. Gradually, I came to understand that the Body Farm is more than a macabre outdoor lab; it’s hallowed ground.
Most bodies that come to the facility are volunteers, who register before their demise. However, a volunteer’s family can’t very well ship their loved one’s remains via the post office. Instead, a funeral home assists in transport. (If you die within 100 miles of Knoxville, the Body Farm will pick up your corpse free of charge.) Upon receipt, the staff unboxes the body and prepares it for research. This is serious work, handled with the utmost respect. One afternoon, Jantz told me, she personally oversaw the arrival of an elderly woman. Tucked inside the box next to the corpse was a collection of travel-size soaps, along with a note. Our mother always insisted on traveling with soap, the note read. We used to tease her that hotels provided such basic needs, but she always said, “You never know.” So for this, our mother’s final journey, we wanted to make sure she’d have everything she needed.
By the end of my visit, I knew the difference between official cremation and “redneck” cremation. The first involves a crematory burning at 1,400 to 1,800 degrees. The second involves a trash barrel and gasoline. Neither method can fool a well-trained forensic anthropologist, who can reach into a box of burned bones — most of which look like rock-size pieces of off-white coral — and identify the sex, age and/or occupation of the human being to whom they once belonged.