TAMPA – Imagine, in death, intentionally commanding the attention of anthropologists, ecologists, geologists, geochemists and geophysicists. And maybe testing the limits of ground-penetrating radar, or expressing yourself chemically through soil samples – with the ultimate goal of bringing closure and justice to the missing, the lost and the forgotten.
It’s an opportunity for what Erin Kimmerle, founder and executive director of the University of South Florida’s Institute of Forensic Anthropology and Applied Science, or IFAAS, calls a “post-mortem career in teaching.”
Today, the remains of several of those “teachers” lay scattered within a secure, 3.5-acre tract of rural Pasco County land 25 miles north of Tampa. Some are buried, some are left on the surface to cure in the sun and soak in the rain, while others are grouped together in mass graves. It’s officially known as the Facility for Outdoor Research and Training, but most people just call it the “body farm.”
And after reading about the Human Donation Program in a newspaper article last year, Sarasota community activist Rhana Bazzini, 87, decided to become one of those future teachers.
“I was signed up to be cremated, but I don’t know, something about cremation just rubbed me the wrong way — I didn’t want to do it. And that doesn’t make any rational sense, I know,” she says, “but that’s the case. When I found out about the body farm, I thought, what a wonderful idea.”
A frequent presence at zoning and school board meetings, Bazzini also marched 330 miles from Sarasota to Tallahassee in 2014. Her walkathon lobbied for a constitutional amendment to force campaign finance reform, a national movement triggered by the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling that opened the floodgates on electioneering spending.
But the idea of post-mortem activism wasn’t the sole factor in Bazzini’s decision. “It doesn’t cost anything to donate, which is great,” she says, “because I’m a very cheap person.”
When launched in 2017, USF’s open-air laboratory – employed for research on human decomposition by multiple law enforcement agencies, other universities and institutions, as well as USF students – became the seventh and newest body farm in the United States, all of which are operated by universities. But USF’s will apparently be the shortest lived.
In May 2019, the Pasco County Commission announced it would terminate its partnership with Kimmerle and USF, beginning in May 2022. The reasons behind that call remain a bit murky.
Pasco County Sheriff Chris Nocco said it was all about wasted space. “It is not possible,” he declared, “to have an exclusive agreement on several acres of land with no intention of utilizing the land in the near future.” Pasco County Sheriff’s Office Assistant Executive Director Chase Daniels described the move as “very simply a land use issue,” with designs on erecting additional buildings for “other research opportunities.”
Kimmerle acknowledges half the land goes unused at any given time because of a “rotation system.” It involves using only portions of the body farm for cadaver research in order to allow exhausted excavation sites to reclaim their natural state. But “land use” is only part of the story, she adds.
“They wanted us to sign different agreements that would turn our donors over to them to use for however they wanted to use them,” Kimmerle says. “That’s why I wouldn’t agree, because when people donate to us, it’s to USF, and we have very specific policies about what we do. When you’re dealing with donors and families, so many different ethical issues come into play.”
IFAAS donation coordinator Gennifer Goad says the program was designed to study cadavers in their natural state of decay to expand its baseline data. “But the Sheriff’s Office began requesting body parts for things like canine training,” she says, “or maybe they wanted bodies to shoot or to blow up for trauma research.”
Goad says 16% of USF’s 81 donated cadavers — from as far away as Vero Beach and West Palm Beach — are trauma-related, but “We’re not open to parceling out bodies or body parts.”
“We wish to be very clear,” counters Daniels, “the Pasco Sheriff’s Office does not receive cadaver donations nor make decisions regarding research. Those decisions are made by the various higher education institutions and their respective forensic anthropologists.”
Daniels adds the program will expand, but research will be led by Florida Gulf Coast University beginning in 2022. Pending a subsequent agreement with Pasco County, that leaves the future of IFAAS field work in a bind. Finding suitable property in largely urban Hillsborough County, accessible to USF students, will be a challenge.
“Depending on traffic, it’s a 45-minute drive to Pasco,” says Goad, “and it’s just getting worse.”
The IFAAS lab is a repository of human skulls and bones, modern and ancient, authentic and casts, arranged on tables and shelving located in a basement office of USF’s Social Science Building. Both Goad and Kimmerle arrived on campus with advanced degrees in anthropology from the University of Tennessee, which pioneered the body farm concept in 1981.
The UT program now accommodates roughly 100 donations a year, most famously the remains of cryptozoologist Grover Krantz (think: Bigfoot research). In 2009, Krantz’s skeleton was rearticulated — as was that of a pet dog — in an exhibit with the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, and his bones have assisted students at George Washington University.
Crime novelist Patricia Cornwell ushered the discipline into the mainstream with “The Body Farm” in 1994. Since then, body farms have taken root at Western Carolina University, Texas State University, Sam Houston State University, Southern Illinois University, and Colorado Mesa University. However, USF boasts the nation’s only venue located in a subtropical and sometimes marshy environment, which attracts interest from across the country.
Kimmerle was initially drawn into the field by 1980s-era testimony from the mothers of “the disappeared” following the “dirty war” conducted by Argentina’s military junta against dissent, which claimed some 9,000 lives. By 1999, she was getting dirt under her own fingernails in Kosovo, during an international war crimes commission’s search for evidence of ethnic atrocities. She estimates her team recovered and examined 1,500 bodies.
“So many of the survivors of the homicide victims, you’d hear the same stories over and over again – they didn’t know where the graves were and they had this desperate need to know what happened,” Kimmerle recalls. “Because as horrible as it was for them to hear the answers, which usually involved multiple gunshot wounds and executions, it’s like the acknowledgement of it has to happen in order to accept it, grieve, and find some sort of peace while working through that process.
“I never met anybody who was, like, ‘don’t tell me.’ We had a lot of compassion for these people, and I knew I wanted to continue that kind of work.”
Kimmerle started her career at USF in 2005 as an adjunct forensics professor. By 2011, she and her multidisciplinary team were making headlines with their investigation into rumors of abuse and violence visited upon youngsters at Florida’s century-old Dozier School for Boys.
Research identified 55 unmarked graves in and around this state Department of Juvenile Justice reform school, and produced documentation on nearly 100 deaths. Florida would shutter the facility, issue burial restitution for relatives who wanted to re-inter their family members, and formally apologize to victims’ survivors. Earlier this year, Kimmerle received the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s Award for Scientific Freedom and Responsibility.
The most visible results of IFAAS’ ongoing work are on display upstairs in an eye-grabbing, cold-case bid to boost public awareness of the estimated 100,000-plus missing and unidentified persons in the United States.
Featuring the work of student forensic artists, the exhibition showcases, in three-dimensional sculptures and drawings, 22 fleshed-out faces of John and Jane Does reconstructed from skull structure.
From the “Little Girl on Collum Street,” a 4- to 6-year-old child found unclothed in the Pennsylvania woods in 1984, to a middle-aged “Man in the Lake” pulled from a Hillsborough County lake in 1982, the subjects stare back across time and space, abandoned and unclaimed.
Kimmerle estimates the “vast majority” of the remains examined by USF involved foul play.
But novel scientific breakthroughs, say Kimmerle and Goad, are awaiting the imaginations of researchers at the body farm, where there are no limits to what death’s decomposition can reveal about life.
Whether exploring the impact of different trace elements on cancer growth or the effects of chemotherapy cocktails on tissue degradation, “this field involves so many diverse disciplines, we’re only doing a fraction of what can be done here,” says Kimmerle, looking ahead to 2022. “And that’s going to be a real loss.
“Everything we do in terms of research is at a high standard for developing standards and protocols in scientific publications.”
Once the Pasco County contract expires, IFAAS will no longer accept cadaver donations. Rhana Bazzini is among USF’s approximately 240 pending pre-donors.
Widowed and having outlived her only child, she expects to still be around in two years, so she isn’t sure what she’ll do with herself when the body farm shuts down. Donating her remains to a medical school is an option, but she’d rather be out there in the sun and the rain and the dew and the dirt, helping future generations expand their knowledge.
“I’ll have to think about this,” she says. “I guess it would depend on what would have the greater value.”
Heather Walsh-Haney, Chair of the Department of Justice Studies at FGCU, Pasco County’s new partner, says the university accepts human remains for its human identity and trauma analysis program.
“What we can guarantee,” says Kimmerle, “is that the ones who are already here are safe and secure, and they will help us continue with our research.”
“I hear back from donor families a lot,” adds Goad. “They’re interested in knowing what kind of research their loved ones are involved with, the specifics, and I like talking to them about it. Because we’ll be using these donations forever.”