Death 101: A look inside Texas State University’s body farm and forensic anthropology center

Field and lab training help researchers learn how to solve crimes and investigate human decomposition

SAN MARCOS, Texas – Helping the forensic science community with research and hands-on training is what the Forensic Anthropology Research Center at Texas State University is all about.

From identifying bodies of immigrants found along the border to research on human decomposition, this program is teaching students and investigators how to solve crimes.

The department is made of a couple of labs and an outdoor research facility that is also known as the body farm.

“Our goal is to provide casework, so we have a service, provide outreach, we are trying to educate the community as well, and then we have education components with our own students and also workshops for law enforcement, and then, of course, the research,” FARF director Dr. Daniel Wescott said.

Every body researched at the facility was donated. In fact, people have to register to donate their bodies before they die. Currently, there is a list of about a thousand people.

Once a body arrives it goes through the intake lab to be looked at and logged. Then its placed to be studied at the body farm.

The 26-acre outdoor human decomposition laboratory is the largest facility of its kind in the world.

The bodies are laid out in various outdoor elements and in different scenarios -- some on the surface in the sunlight, in the shade, in shallow graves, deeper graves, or mass graves.

All of this is done to learn about human decomposition and to train in methods of searching and recovering human bodies.

“They will all eventually be processed down and the skeletons will go back to the lab,” Wescott said.

Once the study outside is done the bodies are cleaned and the bones are taken to the lab for further research and to be placed in a skeletal collection.

The facility also provides hands-on training to law enforcement and death investigators from across the world.

Yearly workshops are held that help investigators get hands-on training on human remains recovery, forensic art and fire/death investigations.

Scenarios are put in place to give trainees the opportunity to try to recreate how to actually solve a death investigation.

“Their job is to figure out what all happened,” Wescott said.

Not only are students in the department learning, but through the workshops, the department has become partners with law enforcement agencies.

Researchers from Texas State are often called to help in real-life investigations or body recoveries.

All of this is valuable in helping forensic science continue to evolve and, most importantly, solve crimes.

About the Authors

Erica Hernandez is an Emmy award-winning journalist with 15 years of experience in the broadcast news business. Erica has covered a wide array of stories all over Central and South Texas. She's currently the court reporter and cohost of the podcast Texas Crime Stories.

Misael started at KSAT-TV as a photojournalist in 1987.

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