Decomposing Bodies and the Ego that Tends Them

book jacketAccording 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)

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    • Gary Allan
    • February 26th, 2008

    I must ask about some of your opinions and how you came about them. What line of work are you in? Have you ever attended any of his lectures? And do you even understand what kind of mindset one has to have in dealing with this type of work?
    A sense of HUMOR and SARCASM is a MUST or it will drive you crazy. The horrors, sadness, and atrocities that one deals with in this line of work can very quickly make you a vicitm as well. If you become a victim, then you are not helping anyone who has asked you for their help.
    The sarcastic titles may not be to you liking, but does get the point of the chapter across. Although he has every right to have an ego he does not. He has confidence and takes pride in what he has done to better the world of forensics. There is a difference. His program and the works of his students are the reasons Foresic case studies exist and the reason many cold case files are solved. His “drifting” into his personal life is his way of telling his readers about him as person….and that he is human. This is the second book about The Body Farm. I suggest you read the first, “Deaths Acre – Inside the Legendary Body Farm” to learn more about the man and the birth of the Forensic Anthropology Research Facility.

    • eatthelemons
    • February 27th, 2008

    Dear Gary,

    Thanks so much for reading the review and posting your reaction. I’m sure Dr. Bass is a very accomplished and knowledgeable person, which certainly helped in the writing of the book under discussion. However, it is unreasonable to expect each person who may pick up the novel (as it is available for purchase in any given chain book store, instead of being limited to a niche of experts and/or admirers of his work) to react in an uniformly positive manner. His reputation, personality, and research are not being critiqued, only the way this book was written. Whatever we do with our lives outside of this ‘zine is fairly irrelevant to our ability to read and appreciate literature. This review is a reflection of an unbiased reader.

    • Gary Allan
    • February 27th, 2008

    HOOO-RAHHH for the unbiased reader! Are you assuming I am a biased reader? Could it be that I am a duck of a different color and maybe like the fact that Dr. Bass told me more of who he was by his sense of humor or off brand comments. I didn’t just see his work, I saw his life in and out of the world of Anthropology. In both of these books, I saw his accomplishments and defeats in both his professional career and in his private life and with one affecting the other. I took both books as being a biography of his life and that of The Body Farm.
    Keep in mind that Dr. Bass had help in writing this book with renowned journalist/author and documentary filmmaker Jon Jefferson. I am sure he had input as to what the contents of the book would or should have. Non the less, I still found it a very informative read and continue to look forward to forthcoming books.
    If the unbiased reader does not want to read about the personal stuff, then might I suggest the books, “Flesh and Bone” , “Carved in Bone” and the recent release, “The Devil’s Bones”. Although the stories are fictional, anyone who has read either of the Body Farm books will no doubt recognize some of the cases brought to life.
    As far as poor taste for the selection of titles go, the press has been using catch-phrase headlines for years fo the sole purpose of getting attention and selling papers. For FYI, the chapter titled, “The Rockets’ Red Glare, Bodies Bursting in Air: Dealing with a Mass Disaster,” was about a family owned illegal fireworks factory disguised as a nightcrawler farm, where an employee caused a massive explosion. And yes…bodies(and body parts) were bursting in the air literally and thrown for several hundred feet in all directions away from where they were working. Even the farm animals were not exempt from the explosion. The sarcastic humor of the title alone tells me the difficulty of finding, identifying, and piecing together some 40 + bodies. What would the biased reader think an appropriate title should be?
    The book is titled “Beyond the Body Farm”. This title and the jacket cover should pretty much tell the reader what to expect and it isn’t sugar coated.

    • eatthelemons
    • March 25th, 2008

    Actually, we reviewed Devil’s Bones also, and in that case, while the forensics were fairly interesting, the fiction didn’t really work. I’m glad you enjoy these books so much, but please realize–not everyone will.

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