Last month I visited a body farm in Texas. So these are places where researchers take
recently deceased human bodies and they essentially just leave them out to decompose. So this
research, mainly it's helpful when law enforcement come across a body under mysterious circumstances,
maybe a murder, and they want to know how long has it been out here. The bodies are
scattered all over the field. They have about 50 out and most of them are under these metal
cages that prevent the vultures from getting in. I kept asking him to lift up the cages
for me to get better photos. So what happens right after you die is all the fluids that
are inside your cells when you're alive leak out and bacteria start feeding immediately.
There converting the liquids and solids inside you into gasses that they emit, and this causes
the second stage, which is bloat. You also have something called marbling during this
stage because one of the gases, sulfur, binds to the hemoglobin molecules in your blood
and changes the color of them to an orange or yellow. And at the same time, flies come.
They come almost immediately when the body is placed, and they lay eggs. And they especially
lay them in any orifices, so your head will get a lot of maggots on it -- the eye sockets
and mouth and nose, and they'll eat away at that first. They're absolutely just crawling
all over the body, like, getting up really close to it and taking photos was the most
intense thing I did there. Then after a few days of that, the body moves to the third
stage, which is called purge. And that's ultimately the bloating is relieved as a lot of the gas
and fluids leak out and you see this dark fluid pooling around the body. And the interesting
thing is that fluid is really nutrient rich, but it's so rich in nitrogen that it kills
off the plants initially. But a year later, it'll become especially fertile. So here this
is the next stage. A lot of the changes happen really rapidly at first, and then it slows
down a lot. There's certainly still bacteria here, but if you were to graph all the nutrients,
it's a very sharp decline. If the body is in the sun, especially in Texas, the heat
is so strong that a lot of bacteria and insects can't actually survive. And so instead of
continuing to decompose the body, it will really gradually mummify -- it'll just dry
up. But if the body is in the shade, then the bacteria and insects can continue to feed
on it and they'll essentially eat it down to a skeleton. With the vultures, the process
is completely different because a flock of them will just swarm a body immediately if
it's left uncaged, and they can eat pretty much all of the flesh off within a few hours.
One of the things that really fascinated me is the way that the bones are frayed. And
that's from their beaks ripping at it voraciously. And that looks like leather or clothing, but
it's skin. Typically they're left out to decompose for 6 to 12 months. So when the bodies come
in, they'll boil them and they put detergent on them and that strips away most of the remaining
flesh. And then volunteer undergraduate interns will clean every single bone with a toothbrush.
The smell was actually the strongest inside that lab. It smells like rotting meat, which
is essentially what it is -- you know, just organic substances that have gone bad. And
then after they get clean they get laid back out, they get labeled, and then they get sent
to the lab closer into town where they get boxed up. And so this basically serves as
a contemporary skeleton collection, which there aren't that many of, as it turns out.
We really seldom see bodies anymore in our modern culture. Most people die in a hospital.
They get directly sent to a funeral home. That funeral home injects them with formaldehyde
and puts makeup all over them, so they don't look like a dead body. But the truth is that
ultimately, whether we see it or not, this happens. Unless you get cremated, it's going
to happen to you. I mean, that's what ecosystems evolved to do -- is harvest nutrients
to create new life.