Eleven years ago, I was lucky enough to go; in fact, I spent two months there at the Body Farm — the University of Tennessee’s Anthropology Research Facility — with a television crew in tow. I was writing and producing two one-hour documentaries for National Geographic. The plan for the first one, which we titled “Biography of a Corpse,” was to follow a research subject, a donated body, through the entire decomposition process. Once we’d gotten permission — not just from the university, but from the partner of a recently deceased man — we started shooting.
In his old life, our star had had a name; in his new life as a research subject, he took on a new identity, known only by a number: he became “31-01”: the 31st body donated to the Anthropology Department in the year 2001. He was one of four bodies being studied, over the course of a year, by a graduate student who was researching how the presence of clothing changes the decomposition rate of bodies, an important question, since most of the facility’s decomp studies had been conducted with nude bodies.
We began filming 31-01 the moment he came out of the cooler at the morgue at UT Medical Center. The body bag was laid on the ground, unzipped, and carefully tugged from beneath him. He was a white-haired man in his seventies, but he had the body of an athlete, a pentathlete, to be precise. One of the photos his partner gave me showed him hurling a javelin, his arm and shoulder looking as chiseled as a statue’s. Lying on the ground beneath the oaks and maples at the Body Farm, he appeared almost to be napping. But that peaceful appearance would change, and change fast. Within seconds, a blowfly alighted on 31-01’s face. It would be followed, in the minutes, days, and weeks to come, by many thousands more, as nature’s recycling crew began reclaiming him.
The process wasn’t going to be pretty, so why had 31-01’s partner agreed to let us film it, and broadcast it worldwide? “He loved science, he loved the human body, and he loved teaching people about the body,” she told me in an interview. He’d actually made other postmortem plans for himself —he’d arranged to donate his body to a medical school — but the school wasn’t able to take his body, so he’d come to the Body Farm as a way to honor the spirit of his last wishes. And the donation came just in the nick of time for our National Geographic documentary. “I think he would have really liked this,” she added with a sweet, poignant smile.
Besides making frequent visits to 31-01 with the video crew — daily at first, when the changes to his body were most rapid — I also rigged a 35-millimeter camera to take stills of him at regular intervals. By the time he was down to nearly bare bones, I had hundreds of photos. We pieced them together to make a film, eight weeks of decay, compressed into a 30-second movie. There’s no dialogue, and 31-01 doesn’t stir from the spot where he was laid, but there’s plenty of movement: his abdomen swells from bloat in his first week, then collapses, his belly going slack and hollow; insects come and go in waves; his facial features dissolve, and the skull beneath the skin emerges. In my favorite frame of the film, a leaf hangs in darkness above 31-01 for a thirtieth of a second, its fall halted in midair by the camera’s flash: a freeze-frame snapshot of mortality, both corporeal and arboreal.
In the years since 31-01 shuffled off his mortal coil before my eyes — my wondering, watchful, grateful eyes —I’ve seen that 30-second film dozens of times, maybe even hundreds of times. Just now, in fact, I took a minute to watch it again. It always ends the same for 31-01, just as it will end for us all, sooner or later.
But I remember another ending, too: the ending I put on the documentary that chronicled his decay. It was a montage of other photos, taken when he was alive, intact, and vigorous. In these, he seems to be an action verb: he is hurling his javelin; posing in his swimsuit by a canoe, his arms akimbo, muscles flexed; perching atop of his woodpile, his face propped on his hands, a big grin on his face.
Today the bones of 31-01 are tucked beneath Neyland Stadium at the University of Tennessee, where the Anthropology Department is housed. He dwells in a city of the dead, kept company by nearly 1400 other specimens in the William M. Bass Donated Skeletal Collection. But in my mind, he’s very much alive, and I’m proud to consider him, in some strange and blessed and life-changing way, a friend for life.
The Inquisitor's Key, was published yesterday. Read an excerpt.
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