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I am asked quite frequently about the “Body Farm,” the research facility at the University of Tennessee where they study rates of decomposition of the human body. The research helps them determine all manner of forensic-y things, like when someone died, under what conditions, etc. I (obviously) blame this interest on shows like CSI and Bones and NCIS.

Sally Mann, Body Farm, 2000-2001

 

“It consists of a 2.5-acre (10,000 m2) wooded plot, surrounded by a razor wire fence. At any one time there will be a number of bodies placed in different settings throughout the facility and left to decompose. The bodies are exposed in a number of ways in order to provide insights into decomposition under varying conditions. Detailed observations and records of the decomposition process are kept, including the sequence and speed of decomposition and the effects of insect activity.

Over 100 bodies are donated to the facility every year. Some individuals pre-register before their death, and others are donated by their families or by a medical examiner. 60% of donations are made by family members of individuals who were not pre-registered with the facility. Over 1300 people have chosen to pre-register themselves”

 

I hadn’t realized that 60 percent of donations were made by families not pre-registered. Being laid out to be decomposed in the elements and poked and prodded and studied seems like something you should really be comfortable with before pre-mortem. It’s that same problem that I had with my mortuary school practicing embalming on indigent bodies from the county morgue. Not inherently wrong (as there is no wrong way to handle a dead body), just something I suspect they wouldn’t want us doing if they had a choice in life to say no.

However, if this is something you find lovely and romantic and reminds you of your favorite investigative crime drama, click here to start the registration process.

Enjoy this poem from Dana Levin’s Sky Burial.

 

SPRING

Forensic Anthropology Center, University of Tennessee, Knoxville

 

I

The sun, in shafts and spades.

Through the pine and birches, little breeze setting off                                                                 the leaves —

Their golden green increase.

Pollen to the air, its colonial dream                                                                                               of a new imperium of trees —

 

Snap against the wrist-skin.

 

And then you press down on the tongue with your gloved thumb                                               to let the honeybee show you the way.

 

2

The dark tunnel paths from light to light.

Flay the face and scoop out the eyes — you’ll see.

 

3

Bees in a cloud round your hand.

Egg-herder, your smell                                                                                                                    synonymous with treasure —

Shining a light at the back of the throat:                                                                                      blowflies                                                                                            in liquid pearls                                                                                                                              the bees murder to eat —

And all at the lips and nose a yellow dust, pollen                                                                          they have                                                                                             delivered —

You scrape it into a little sack.

 

4

Ripple and snap.

Bend to the O of the rigored mouth — listen:

Plastic bags, like souls, caught in trees.

 

5

What to harvest                                                                                                                             from the sloughed-off suits of the dead.

Like seashells cupping the ghost-tongue of the sea,                                                                     their black mouths speak —

You crouch to the hum with a bag and a blade. You

the god it sways.

 

Sally Mann, Body Farm, 2000-2001
Sally Mann, Body Farm, 2000-2001
Sally Mann, Body Farm, 2000-2001
Sally Mann, Body Farm, 2000-2001

 

Dana Levin + Sky Burial

Photos from Sally Mann‘s photo series Body Farm, from the book What Remains, a five-part photographic meditation on mortality.

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