Imagine a research facility where human corpses are buried in soil, left in water and hung from trees, and allowed to decompose.
The idea is that nature is allowed to take its course, allowing researchers to monitor the bodies as they decay without human interference.
If you’re uncomfortable with that thought, you may be reassured to hear that human taphonomy facilities (HTFs), also known as body farms, are currently illegal in the UK.
However, that may not be the case for much longer as forensic scientists are in talks with the government over opening the UK’s first human body farm.
Such a facility would enable scientists to understand how the body decomposes naturally, as well as helping detectives figure out what happened to murder victims, and assist in the training of student forensic scientists.
Dr Chris Rogers, a forensic science lecturer at the University of Wolverhampton, set up an animal body farm in his previous post at Wales’ Glyndwr University, exploring the way pigs’ bodies decompose.
Explaining why human body farms would be useful, he told Metro.co.uk: ‘We can conduct research into decomposition of human remains in a UK setting. This is essential as decomposition can vary depending on a range of factors including temperature and humidity.
‘At the moment, we take data from experiments conducted in the UK using animal models, or data generated from facilities in the US and apply them to the UK – which is a less than ideal situation.’
He explained that a forensic scientist giving evidence in court could give answers about a body’s state of decomposition with certainty – rather than comparing human remains to pigs.
His comments echo those of Anna Williams, a forensic anthropologist at Huddersfield University, who told The Guardian that some of the UK’s most infamous child murders, including the cases of April Jones, Milly Dowler or Soham victims Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman, ‘could have been helped with information of the type that we will get from such centres’.
She added: ‘It would have allowed us to develop improved search and location techniques for finding bodies of people who had been missing for a long time. There is now an urgent need to establish one in this country.’
While there are not yet any HTFs in the UK, the USA has seven body farms, run by the FBI, with the most recent opening in Florida in February this year.
Of course, using human bodies in this way is controversial – something that Dr Rogers accepts.
He said: ‘Death is taboo in the west, we hide it, and even take steps to prevent decomposition occurring.
‘In fact, decomposition is incredibly important. It is nature’s way of breaking down organisms into their simple chemical components that can then be recycled back into the environment, and it is a completely normal, natural process.’
Despite those who oppose the idea, Dr Rogers has also received support.
He added: ‘I have even had people contacting me asking if they could donate their remains to help with my research.’
He explained that any human body farm in Britain would need to be strictly controlled and regulated, and donors should be aware of what will happen to their body.