8 Fascinating Facts About Body Farms

Nirut Punshiri/iStock via Getty Images
Nirut Punshiri/iStock via Getty Images

Have you ever wanted to provide valuable assistance into a criminal investigation but don’t have the time, resources, or technical ability? Not to worry. You can still help by donating your corpse to a body farm.

Less than a dozen body farms, including prominent locations in Tennessee and Texas, are scattered around the world. These forensic facilities provide valuable insight into body decomposition by carefully monitoring the dead as they deteriorate under a variety of environments—from cold winters that can slow the withering process to searing climates that can speed it up. Such studies fall under the purview of forensic taphonomy, or the study of what the body experiences between death and discovery. It may sound morbid, but the science can help law enforcement better pinpoint the time and method of death in cases involving foul play. For more on these scientific graveyards, keep reading.

1. The first body farm opened as a result of a Civil War mystery—and maggots.

Forensic anthropologist William Bass was working for the University of Tennessee and the state's medical examiner's office in the 1970s when he was struck by a strange new variable in his analysis of corpses: maggots.

Having spent much of his career in Kansas, where bodies can go years before being discovered due to the wide swaths of unoccupied land (by which time the maggots were usually long gone), Bass realized he knew little about how the insects could help pinpoint time of death for "fresh" corpses. There wasn't much in forensic literature about them, either. His concerns over the imperfect understanding of decomposition were heightened when local police asked for his assistance with a strange case: They'd recently discovered that the grave of a Civil War-era colonel named William Shy had been disturbed. Inside the casket was a body that looked oddly well-preserved for having spent over 100 years in the ground. Police suspected someone had swapped Shy’s body for that of a recent crime victim. That turned out not to be the case—Shy was simply well-embalmed in a tightly sealed casket—but it was further evidence the science of post-mortem investigation needed to be brought up to date.

Up until then, forensic analysis had been limited to pig carcasses. Bass decided to make the study of decomposing human corpses his primary focus, and set up a 1.3-acre plot on a farm donated to the university outside of Knoxville. By the end of the 1970s, the first body farm was open and running.

2. People donate their corpses to body farms for different reasons.

The body farm at the University of Tennessee has seen roughly 1800 corpses pass through its grounds, with another 4000 pledging to join them in the future. Why would anyone agree to such post-mortem treatment? For some, the donation of their bodies to science is reason enough. Body farms typically have fewer requirements than medical schools, which often put limits on the deceased’s body weight or reject bodies that have undergone an autopsy. (It’s also worth noting medical schools can only dissect a body once, while bodies at the farms can provide information for months.) Others may want to apply their philosophy about returning to the earth and allowing their body’s nutrients to be “recycled.” For others, cost is a consideration. Funerals can run into the thousands of dollars. At the Texas State body farm, dubbed Freeman Ranch, pick-up is free.

3. Bodies experience a variety of fates at the farms—including vultures.

At Freeman Ranch, bodies are observed while under siege by a variety of different elements. The field is typically made up of about 50 corpses at a time: Some go directly under the sun, while others rest in the shade. A few might be positioned in cars or in sheds. Scientists put many bodies in a cage to prevent animals from interrupting the process, while other bodies are left out and vulnerable to animals—including vultures—to determine what kind of damage can be inflicted. A rat, for example, will only gnaw on fresh, greasy bone, whereas a squirrel will chomp on an older, dry bone. That helps investigators know that if they see squirrel bites, the body is probably at least a year old.

Of course, corpses will see deterioration with or without the involvement of predators. Once the body’s cells rupture during the decay process, skin begins sloughing off. Bacterial growth within the body leads to the release of gases that can bloat a corpse to twice its normal size. That leads to flies, who lay eggs and introduce maggots that feed on flesh. Leaking fluids, bacteria, and maggots all conspire to eventually render the body a bony remnant, left to dry out and mummify. Within six to 12 months, nothing will remain but bone, some skin, and cartilage. Temperature and exposure can alter the timing of these processes, however: In cooler climates, for example, flies may not be in any hurry to lay eggs, as they prefer to do that in warmer months.

4. The term body farm has mysterious origins.

William Bass and his anthropological cohorts didn’t coin the catchy phrase body farm. The official name for their research area is the Forensic Anthropology Center. The term body farm is sometimes credited to Knoxville police, who began using it as slang in the 1980s. Others cite novelist Patricia Cornwell, who wrote a 1994 crime novel titled Body Farm and included a character conducting research similar to Bass. The character, Lyall Shade, appears in several Cornwell novels tending to the fictional Knoxville Body Farm.

5. Body farms let law enforcement conduct mock exhumations.

Not all bodies at body farms remain exposed to the elements. Some locations, like the University of Tennessee’s, invite law enforcement officials to come and dig up bodies so they can better understand the anatomy of bones, how bodies are positioned in graves, and how to collect forensic evidence. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) has been sending agents to the Tennessee site for the past 20 years.

6. Body farms find even skeletal remains useful, too.

Once a body has finished decomposing and has reached the point where observation is no longer useful, the remaining bones are often stored so they can be used for comparison purposes later on. Why? Human skeletal structures can vary depending on lifestyle habits. People carrying excessive weight might have more joint wear, for example. In 2008, anthropology professor and Texas State body farm director Daniel Wescott noticed that the remains of a decapitated body had slender thigh bones. Based on samples from the University of Tennessee, Westcott surmised that the bones were smaller than usual because the victim spent time in a wheelchair. The tip allowed the public to assist authorities in identifying the victim.

7. Body farms maintain photo rights.

If you’re squeamish about extensive photographic analysis of your body or your dearly departed's, it’s best not to donate to a body farm. Most farms retain photographic rights, which means you could end up in a National Geographic documentary or embedded in an article that uses your now-deceased self to illustrate the finer points of decay for the public at large.

8. The bones at body farms sometimes go back to loved ones.

Body farms are typically fenced-in and covered by security cameras to avoid trespassers or any other unintended indignities being visited upon their occupants. The University of Tennessee site is not open for public tours. But after decomposition ends and bones are stored? That’s another story. The university allows scholars and investigators to check out the bones like books for examination and then return them. The offer is also open to relatives of the deceased. On average, four to six families a year request to see the skeleton of their loved one and get more information on how their death is helping science.

This Course Will Teach You How to Play Guitar Like a Pro for $29

BartekSzewczyk/iStock via Getty Images
BartekSzewczyk/iStock via Getty Images

Be honest: You’ve watched a YouTube video or two in an attempt to learn how to play a song on the guitar. Whether it was through tabs or simply copying whatever you saw on the screen, the fun always ends when friends start throwing out requests for songs you have no idea how to play. So how about you actually learn how to play guitar for real this time?

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This bundle also includes courses in ear training so you can properly identify any relative note, interval, or pitch. That way, you can play along with any song when it comes on, or even understand how to modify it into the key you’d prefer. And when the time comes to perform, be prepared with skilled hammer-ons, pull-offs, slides, bends, trills, vibrato, and fret-tapping. Not only will you learn the basic foundations of guitar, you’ll ultimately be able to develop your own style with the help of these lessons.

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11 Fascinating Facts About Tamagotchi

Tamagotchi is the toy that launched a thousand digital pet competitors.
Tamagotchi is the toy that launched a thousand digital pet competitors.
Chesnot/Getty Images News

They blooped and beeped and ate, played, and pooped, and, for ‘90s kids, the egg-shaped Tamagotchi toys were magic. They taught the responsibility of tending to a “pet,” even though their shrill sounds were annoying to parents and teachers and school administrators. Nearly-real funerals were held for expired Tamagotchi, and they’ve even been immortalized in a museum (of sorts). Here are 11 things you should know about the keychain toy that was once stashed in every kid’s backpack.

1. The idea for the Tamagotchi came from a female office worker at Bandai.

Aki Maita was a 30-year-old “office lady” at the Japanese toy company Bandai when inspiration struck. She wanted to create a pet for kids—one that wouldn't bark or meow, make a mess in the house, or lead to large vet bills, according to Culture Trip. Maita took her idea to Akihiro Yokoi, a toy designer at another company, and the duo came up with a name and backstory for their toy: Tamagotchis were aliens, and their egg served as protection from the Earth’s atmosphere. They gave prototype Tamagotchis to high school girls in Shibuya, and tweaked and honed the design of the toy based on their feedback.

2. The name Tamagotchi is a blend of two Japanese words.

The name Tamagotchi is a mashup between the Japanese words tamago and tomodachi, or egg and friend, according to Culture Trip. (Other sources have the name meaning "cute little egg" or "loveable egg.")

3. Tamagotchis were released in Japan in 1996.

A picture of a tamagotchi toy.
Tamagotchis came from a faraway planet called "Planet Tamagotchi."
Museum Rotterdam, Wikimedia Commons//CC BY-SA 3.0

Bandai released the Tamagotchi in Japan in November 1996. The tiny plastic keychain egg was equipped with a monochrome LCD screen that contained a “digital pet,” which hatched from an egg and grew quickly from there—one day for a Tamagotchi was equivalent to one year for a human. Their owners used three buttons to feed, discipline, play with, give medicine to, and clean up after their digital pet. It would make its demands known at all hours of the day through bloops and bleeps, and owners would have to feed it or bathe it or entertain it.

Owners that successfully raised their Tamagotchi to adulthood would get one of seven characters, depending on how they'd raised it; owners that were less attentive faced a sadder scenario. “Leave one unattended for a few hours and you'll return to find that it has pooped on the floor or, worse, died,” Wired wrote. The digital pets would eventually die of old age at around the 28-day mark, and owners could start fresh with a new Tamagotchi.

4. Tamagotchis were an immediate hit.

The toys were a huge success—4 million units were reportedly sold in Japan during their first four months on shelves. By 1997, Tamagotchis had made their way to the United States. They sold for $17.99, or around $29 in today's dollars. One (adult) reviewer noted that while he was "drawn in by [the Tamagotchi's] cleverness," after several days with the toy, "the thrill faded quickly. I'm betting the Tamagotchi will be the Pet Rock of the 1990s—overwhelmingly popular for a few months, and then abandoned in the fickle rush to some even cuter toy."

The toy was, in fact, overwhelmingly popular: By June 1997, 10 million of the toys had been shipped around the world. And according to a 2017 NME article, a whopping 82 million Tamagotchi had been sold since their release into the market in 1997.

5. Aki Maita and Akihiro Yokoi won an award for inventing the Tamagotchi.

In 1997, the duo won an Ig Nobel Prize in economics, a satiric prize that’s nonetheless presented by Nobel laureates at Harvard, for "diverting millions of person-hours of work into the husbandry of virtual pets" by creating the Tamagotchi.

6. Tamagotchis weren't popular with teachers.

Some who grew up with Tamagotchi remember sneaking the toys into school in their book bags. The toys were eventually banned in some schools because they were too distracting and, in some cases, upsetting for students. In a 1997 Baltimore Sun article titled “The Tamagotchi Generation,” Andrew Ratner wrote that the principal at his son’s elementary school sent out a memo forbidding the toys “because some pupils got so despondent after their Tamagotchis died that they needed consoling, even care from the school nurse.”

7. One pet cemetery served as a burial ground for expired Tamagotchi.

Terry Squires set aside a small portion of his pet cemetery in southern England for dead Tamagotchi. He told CNN in 1998 that he had performed burials for Tamagotchi owners from Germany, Switzerland, France, the United States, and Canada, all of whom ostensibly shipped their dead by postal mail. CNN noted that "After the Tamagotchis are placed in their coffins, they are buried as mourners look on, their final resting places topped with flowers."

8. There were many copycat Tamagotchi.

The success of the Tamagotchi resulted in both spin-offs and copycat toys, leading PC Mag to dub the late ’90s “The Golden Age of Virtual Pets.” There was the Digimon, a Tamagotchi spin-off by Bandai that featured monsters and was marketed to boys. (There were also Tamagotchi video games.) And in 1997, Tiger Electronics launched Giga Pets, which featured real animals (and, later, dinosaurs and fictional pets from TV shows). According to PC Mag, Giga Pets were very popular in the United States but “never held the same mystique as the original Tamagotchi units.” Toymaker Playmates's Nano Pets were also a huge success, though PC Mag noted they were “some of the least satisfying to take care of."

9. Rare Tamagotchis can be worth a lot of money.

According to Business Insider, most vintage Tamagotchis won't fetch big bucks on the secondary market. (On eBay, most are priced at around $50.) The exception are rare editions like “Yasashii Blue” and “Tamagotchi Ocean,” which go for $300 to $450 on eBay. As Complex notes, "There were over 40 versions (lines) of Tamagotchi released, and each line featured a variety of colors and variations ... yours would have to be one of the rarest models to be worth the effort of resale."

10. A new generation of Tamagotchis were released in 2017 for the toy's 20th anniversary.

The 2017 re-release of the Tamagotchi in its packaging.
Bandai came to the aid of nostalgic '90s kids when it re-released a version of the original Tamagotchis for the toy's 20th anniversary.
Chesnot/Getty Images

In November 2017, Bandai released a 20th anniversary Tamagotchi that, according to a press release [PDF], was "a first-of-its-kind-anywhere exact replica of the original Tamagotchi handheld digital pet launched ... in 1996." However, as The Verge reported, the toys weren't an exact replica: "They're about half the size, the LCD display is square rather than rectangle, and those helpful icons on the top and bottom of the screen seem to be gone now." In 2019, new Tamagotchis were released; they were larger than the originals, featured full-color displays, and retailed for $60.

11. The original Tamagotchi’s sound has been immortalized in a virtual museum.

The Museum of Endangered Sounds is a website that seeks to immortalize the digital sounds that become extinct as we hurtle through the evolution of technology. “The crackle of a dial-up modem. The metallic clack of a 3.5-inch floppy slotting into a Macintosh disk drive. The squeal of the newborn Tamagotchi. They are vintage sounds that no oldies station is ever going to touch,” The Washington Post wrote in a 2012 profile of the museum. So, yes, the sound of that little Tamagotchi is forever preserved, should it someday, very sadly, cease to exist completely.