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.

10 Surprising Facts About Wham!’s 'Last Christmas'

Michael Putland/Getty Images
Michael Putland/Getty Images

Over the course of his illustrious career, George Michael gave the world many gifts. One that keeps on giving is “Last Christmas,” the 1984 holiday classic by Wham!, Michael's pop duo with Andrew Ridgeley. “Last Christmas” is such a uniquely beloved song that it inspired a 2019 film of the same name. That’s just one interesting part of the “Last Christmas” story. Read on for 10 fascinating facts about this seasonal synth-pop favorite.

1. George Michael wrote "Last Christmas" in his childhood bedroom.

“Last Christmas” was born one day in 1984 when George Michael and Wham! bandmate Andrew Ridgeley were visiting Michael’s parents. While they were sitting around watching TV, Michael suddenly dashed upstairs to his childhood bedroom and composed the modern Xmas classic in about an hour. “George had performed musical alchemy, distilling the essence of Christmas into music,” Ridgeley said. “Adding a lyric which told the tale of betrayed love was a masterstroke and, as he did so often, he touched hearts."

2. “Last Christmas” isn’t really a Christmas song.

There’s nothing in “Last Christmas” about Santa, reindeer, trees, snow, or anything we typically associate with the holiday. Rather, the song is about a failed romance that just happens to have begun on December 25, when Michael gave someone his heart, and ended on December 26, when this ungrateful person “gave it away.”

3. George Michael wrote and produced the song—but that’s not all.

Singers George Michael (left) and Andrew Ridgeley, of the band 'Wham!', performing on stage, July 1986
Dave Hogan/Getty Images

By the time Wham! recorded “Last Christmas” in August (yes, August) 1984, Michael had taken full control of the group. In addition to writing and producing the song, Michael insisted on playing the Roland Juno-60 synth in the studio. “George wasn’t a musician,” engineer Chris Porter said. “It was a laborious process, because he was literally playing the keyboards with two or three fingers.” Michael even jangled those sweet sleigh bells himself.

4. “Last Christmas” didn’t reach #1 on the UK charts.

As the movie Love Actually reminds us, scoring a Christmas #1 in the UK is a really big deal. Unfortunately, “Last Christmas” didn’t give Wham! that honor. It stalled at #2, and to this day it has the distinction of being the highest-selling UK single of all time to not reach #1.

5. George Michael sang on the song that kept “Last Christmas” at #2.

“Last Christmas” was bested on the UK charts by Band Aid’s “Do They Know It’s Christmas,” an all-star charity single benefiting Ethiopian famine relief. Michael sang on “Do They Know It’s Christmas,” and was so committed to the cause that he donated his profits from “Last Christmas” to helping the African nation.

6. George Michael was sued for plagiarism over “Last Christmas.”

In the mid-1980s, the publishing company Dick James Music sued George Michael on behalf of the writers of “Can’t Smile Without You,” a schmaltzy love song recorded by The Carpenters and Barry Manilow, among others. According to Chris Porter, the recording engineer on “Last Christmas,” the suit was dismissed after a musicologist presented 60-plus songs that have a similar chord progression and melody.

7. "Last Christmas" has been covered by a lot of other artists.

Andrew Ridgeley (right) and George Michael (1963-2016) of Wham! performing on stage together in Sydney, Australia during the pop duo's 1985 world tour, January 1985.
Michael Putland/Getty Images

Jimmy Eat World, Hilary Duff, Good Charlotte, Ariana Grande, Carly Rae Jepsen, Gwen Stefani, and Taylor Swift are just a few of the artists who’ve covered “Last Christmas” over the years. The strangest rendition may be the 2006 dance version by the Swedish CGI character Crazy Frog, which reached #16 on the UK charts.

8. Some people make a concerted effort to avoid hearing “Last Christmas.”

While millions of people delight in hearing “Last Christmas” every year, an internet game called Whamageddon encourages players to avoid the song from December 1 to 24. The rules are simple: Once you hear the original Wham! version of “Last Christmas” (remixes and covers don’t count), you’re out. You then admit defeat on social media with the hashtag #Whamageddon and wait for your friends to suffer the same fate. Note: The rules prohibit you from “deliberately sending your friends to Whamhalla.”

9. “Last Christmas” finally charted in America following George Michael’s death in 2016.

Back in 1984, “Last Christmas” wasn’t released as a commercial single in the United States, and therefore it wasn’t eligible for the Billboard Hot 100 chart. However, Billboard changed its rules in 1998, and in the wake of George Michael’s unexpected death on Christmas Day 2016, the song finally made its Hot 100 debut. In December 2018, it reentered the charts and peaked at #25.

10. George Michael was involved in the Last Christmas movie.

November 2019 saw the release of Paul Feig's Last Christmas, a romantic comedy inspired by the song starring Game of Thrones's Emilia Clarke. Producer David Livingstone came up with the idea while George Michael was still alive, and when he pitched the pop star on the project, he was given the greenlight—with one condition: Michael stipulated that actress and author Emma Thompson write the movie. Thompson co-authored the story and the screenplay, and she even wound up playing a supporting role.

The Origins of 12 Christmas Traditions

Tom Merton/iStock via Getty Images
Tom Merton/iStock via Getty Images

From expecting Santa to fill our footwear with gifts to eating cake that looks like tree bark, the holidays are filled with traditions—some of which are downright odd when you stop and think about them. Where did they come from? Wonder no more. Here are the origins of 12 Christmas traditions.

1. Hanging Stockings

While there’s no official record of why we hang socks for Santa, one of the most plausible explanations is that it's a variation on the old tradition of leaving out shoes with hay inside them on December 5, the eve of St. Nicholas’s feast day. Lucky children would discover that the hay they left for St. Nick’s donkey had been replaced with treats or coins when they woke up the next morning. Another story says that St. Nicholas learned of a father who was unable to pay for his three daughters' dowries, so St. Nick dropped gold balls down a chimney, which landed in stockings hung by the fire to dry. But this appears to be a modern telling—traditional versions of the story generally have the gold land at the father's feet after being thrown through a window.

Regardless of what started the tradition, people seem to have realized the need to use a decorative stocking in place of an actual sock pretty early on. In 1883, The New York Times wrote:

"In the days of the unobtrusive white stocking, no one could pretend that the stocking itself was a graceful or attractive object when hanging limp and empty from the foot of the bedstead. Now, however, since the adoption of decorated stockings ... even the empty stocking may be a thing of beauty, and its owner can display it with confidence both at the Christmas season and on purely secular occasions."

2. Caroling

Though it may seem like a centuries-old tradition, showing up at people’s houses to serenade them with seasonal tunes only dates back to the 19th century. Before that, neighbors did visit each other to impart wishes of good luck and good cheer, but not necessarily in song. Christmas carols themselves go back hundreds of years, minus the door-to-door part. The mashup of the two ideas didn’t come together until Victorian England, when caroling was part of every holiday—even May Day festivals. As Christmas became more commercialized, caroling for the occasion became more popular.

3. Using Evergreens as Christmas Trees

Rows of Christmas trees at tree farm on cold winter morning
arlutz73/iStock via Getty Images

Before Christianity was even conceived of, people used evergreen boughs to decorate their homes during the winter; the greenery reminded them that plants would return in abundance soon. As Christianity became more popular in Europe, and Germany in particular, the tradition was absorbed into it. Christians decorated evergreen trees with apples to represent the Garden of Eden, calling them "Paradise Trees" around the time of Adam and Eve's name day—December 24. Gradually, the tradition was subsumed into Christmas celebrations.

The tradition spread as immigrants did, but the practice really took off when word got around that England’s Queen Victoria decorated a Christmas tree as a nod to her German husband’s heritage (German members of the British royal family had previously had Christmas trees, but they never caught on with the wider public). Her influence was felt worldwide, and by 1900, one in five American families had a Christmas tree. Today, 25 to 30 million real Christmas trees are sold in the U.S. every year.

4. The Colors Red and Green

As with many other old Christmas traditions, there’s no hard-and-fast event that deemed red and green the Official Colors of Christmas™. But there are theories—the green may have derived from the evergreen tradition that dates back to before Christianity, and the red may be from holly berries. While they’re winter-hardy, just like evergreens, they also have a religious implication: The red berries have been associated with the blood of Christ.

5. Ugly Christmas Sweaters

To celebrate this joyous season, many people gleefully don hideous knitwear adorned with ribbons, sequins, bows, and lights. In the past, the trend was embraced solely by grandmas, teachers, and fashion-challenged parents, but in the last decade or so, the ugly sweater has gone mainstream. We may have Canada to blame for that: According to the Ugly Christmas Sweater Party Book, the ugly sweater party trend can be traced to a 2001 gathering in Vancouver.

6. Leaving Milk and Cookies for Santa

Closeup image of wish list and treats for Santa Claus on table next to burning fireplace
Artfoliophoto/iStock via Getty Images

When we plunk a few Oreos or chocolate chip cookies on a plate for St. Nick, accompanied by a cold glass of milk, we’re actually participating in a tradition that some scholars date back to ancient Norse mythology. According to legend, Odin had an eight-legged horse named Sleipnir. Kids would leave treats for Sleipnir, hoping that Odin would favor them with gifts in return. The practice became popular again in the U.S. during the Great Depression, when parents tried to impress upon kids the importance of being grateful for anything they were lucky enough to receive for Christmas.

7. The A Christmas Story Marathon on TBS

If one of the highlights of your holiday is tuning in for 24 hours of watching Ralphie Parker nearly shoot his eye out, you’re not alone—over the course of the day, more than 50 million viewers flip to TBS. The marathon first aired on TNT in 1997, then switched to sister station TBS in 2004. This Christmas marks the 20th year for the annual movie marathon.

8. Yule Logs

Chocolate yule log cake with red currant on wooden background
etorres69/iStock via Getty Images

Throwing a yule log on the fire is another tradition that is said to predate Christianity. As part of winter solstice celebrations, Gaels and Celts burned logs decorated with holly, ivy, and pinecones to cleanse themselves of the past year and welcome the next one. They also believed the ashes would help protect against lightning strikes and evil spirits. The practice was scaled down over time, and eventually, it morphed into a more delicious tradition—cake! Parisian bakers really popularized the practice of creating yule log-shaped desserts during the 19th century, with various bakeries competing to see who could come up with the most elaborately decorated yule log.

If you prefer a wood yule log to one covered in frosting, but find yourself sans fireplace, you can always tune in to Yule Log TV.

9. Advent Calendars

Technically, Advent, a religious event that has been celebrated since the 4th century, is a four-week period that starts on the Sunday closest to the November 30 feast day of St. Andrew the Apostle. Traditionally, it marked the period to prepare for Christmas as well as the Second Coming. These days, it’s mostly used as a countdown to Christmas for the religious and the non-religious alike.

The modern commercialized advent calendar, which marks the passage of December days with little doors containing candy or small gifts, are believed to have been introduced by Gerhard Lang in the early 1900s. He was inspired by a calendar that his mother made for him when he was a child that featured 24 colored pictures attached to a piece of cardboard. Today, advent calendars contain everything from candy to LEGOs.

10. Eggnog

Eggnog in two glass cups
GreenArtPhotography/iStock via Getty Images

It’s hard to imagine why anyone would be inspired to chug a raw egg-based drink, but historians agree that 'nog was probably inspired by a medieval drink called posset, a milky drink made with eggs, milk, and sometimes figs or sherry. These were all pricey ingredients, so the wealthy often used it for toasting.

Eggnog became a holiday drink when colonists brought it over from England, but they found a way to make it on the cheap, nixing the figs and substituting rum for sherry. And how about that weird "nog" name? No one knows for sure, but historians theorize that nog was short for noggin, which was slang for a wooden cup, or a play on the Norfolk variety of beer also called nog (which itself may be named after the cup).

11. Mistletoe

Mistletoe has been associated with fertility and vitality since ancient times, when Celtic Druids saw it as such because it blossomed even during the most frigid winters; the association stuck over the centuries.

It’s easy to see how fertility and kissing can be linked, but no one is quite sure how smooching under the shrub (actually, it’s a parasitic plant) became a common Christmas pastime. We do know the tradition was popular with English servants in the 18th century, then quickly spread to those they served. The archaic custom once allowed men to steal a kiss from any woman standing beneath; if she refused, they were doomed with bad luck.

12. Christmas Cards

Exchanging holiday greetings via mail is a surprisingly recent tradition, with the first formal card hitting shelves in 1843. Designed by an Englishman named J.C. Horsley, the cardboard greeting showed a happy group of people participating in a toast, along with the printed sentiment, "A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to you.” A thousand of them were printed that first year, and because it cost just a penny to mail a holiday hello to friends and family (the card itself was a shilling, or 12 times as much), the cards sold like hotcakes and a new custom was born. Today, Americans send around 2 billion cards every year.

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