Decomposing Bodies and the Ego that Tends Them
According to the book jacket, Dr. Bill Bass is a “pioneer in forensic anthropology, [he] created the world’s first laboratory dedicated to the study of human decomposition—three acres of land on a hillside in Tennessee where human bodies are left to the elements.” The wide array of data collected on the Body Farm, as this hillside was dubbed, has opened up hundreds of paths in the dense forest of cause-of-death investigations. New forensic specializations formed and grew at the Body Farm, from forensic entomology, forensic art, and forensic chemistry, to molecular anthropology.
Each chapter of Beyond the Body Farm, written by Dr. Bill Bass and journalist Jon Jefferson, addresses a different case, or aspect of a case, that Bass has personally worked on and solved. They are overwhelmingly murder cases, but accidental deaths are also examined. Bass begins each chapter with a brief discussion of the difficulties such an investigation would have faced without forensic anthropology’s research forays into just such a possibility, and several times, goes off onto a rather unrelated tangential anecdote, including topics so outside the scope of the book (such as his marriage) that the reader must stop, confused, and wonder why their time is being wasted. Typically his investigations require special experimentation and innovative approaches, which are invariably the most interesting parts. In this respect the book is very enlightening.
Dr. Bass has undoubtedly improved crime scene investigations and is personally credited with solving hundreds of cases, and bringing justice and peace to families across the country. His work was not precisely groundbreaking, in that the decomposition of flesh had been studied before, but he was the first to catalog such a wide array of variables and their effects on the human body—
“Not surprisingly, when we began our research program back in the early 1980s, our experiments were designed to answer form very basic questions: How long does it take the arms to fall off? When does the skull start showing through? At what point is a body reduced to bare bone? […] Fairly quickly though, our research projects became more sophisticated, and we developed timelines and mathematical formulas that could help us estimate, with surprising accuracy, how long someone had been dead once we obtained temperature records for the days or weeks prior to the body’s discovery” (xvii).
Unfortunately, his storytelling, when it comes to the background of the victim and others involved in the death, suffers from a malady caused by the dissonance between clinical explanation and the emotionally charged topic. As a scientist, Dr. Bass is accustomed to describing the macabre in as detached a way as possible, and is therefore not gifted with delicacy in describing the grisly. He occasionally comes off sounding flippant about murder, death and pain. Even the chapter titles do not reflect the kind of respectful language one would expect in a book is about death: “The Rockets’ Red Glare, Bodies Bursting in Air: Dealing with a Mass Disaster,” and “Dead for the Holidays: Determining Time Since Death” stand out as particularly in poor taste.
Additionally, Bass rarely passes up an opportunity to explain how important he is, or how integral his personal contributions were to some line of research or investigation leading to solving a case—his ego shows through and is, at times, very irritating. Admittedly, the book is about research he began and, in many cases, helped to develop, and he also does not shy away from admitting when there is a gap in his knowledge. Despite this, his consistent back patting leaves a bad taste in my mouth.
Dr. Bass may not be able to resist emphasizing his role, but he gives credit to everyone involved in each case, and satisfies all our curiosities as he explains the research methods that led him and his teams to the final answers in seemingly hopeless cases of lonely, dry and scattered bones. If you love CSI and can get past the annoyances of a self-important researcher (who is nonetheless brilliant and who has brought closure to the families of hundreds), this book is worth the read.
Beyond the Body Farm: A Legendary Bone Detective Explores Murders, Mysteries, and the Revolution in Forensic Science available on Amazon
Hardcover: 304 pages
Publisher: William Morrow (September 4, 2007)