When the topic turns to where to go when we die, the answers can range from terror of dying to an opportunity for dealing with the corpse in a similar fashion to animals in nature, which includes leave me under the nearest tree or in the case of the city dweller, dig a hole next to the lemon tree and bury me there, as one of many examples.
In reality the choices are very limited – burial in a grave at a cemetery or incineration at a cremation facility and then depositing the cremains – ashes – at a favourite spot frequented by the deceased or kept on the mantle piece for years, or shared with family members – the list goes on.
But rarely does anyone mention a body farm as a half way stop off before cremation. That’s because it is not a widely available options and many frown at the thought.
Shari Forbes is the forensic chemist in charge of Australia’s first body farm, operated by the University of Technology, Sydney, writes Julie Power in: The woman with a nose for death (SMH April 11, 2015).
Forbes is endlessly fascinated by death and how we decay, says Julie Forbes.
“It is not because it smells like decomposition but I have no problems with bad odours,” said Forbes, a forensic chemist and professor at the University of Technology Sydney (UTS ). She is also lead researcher and the coordinator of Australia’s first body farm, the Australian Facility for Taphonomic Experimental Research with the convenient acronym of AFTER, which starts next year . (A body farm studies the five stages of human decompositon.)
At 37, Professor Forbes has spent her life trying to capture the smell of death. A much-published researcher on the science of forensic taphonomy or the rate of human decay and decomposition, she specialises in how to develop the best chemical representations of these odours so sniffer dogs can find the dead as quickly as possible.
She explains with practised ease what will happen at the site.
“The body will be placed on the soil or in a shallow grave, and we will allow nature to take its course.”
A mesh cover will stop animals from disturbing or distributing the remains. The bones are required by legislation to be returned to UTS where final wishes of the family will be carried out.
Perhaps a clue as to why she is so comfortable around death and dead bodies, is the fact that: She started life on a farm near Brewarrina, where her father was a grazier. Times were hard, and there were no euphemisms. Animals were killed or put down. Things died.
It was while she was finishing her honours at UTS that she saw human remains for the first time. She was asked to research why corpses in some waterlogged parts of some Sydney cemeteries were deteriorating much slower than in other parts of the same cemetery.
By the time she saw the remains for the first time, they were mostly bones.
Back then, she found the bleating stage of death the most confronting. Now she can deal with even the worst cases, such as extremely pungent waterlogged corpses.
Apparently that’s normal. It is the insects, the liquids and the biological waste that makes most people squeamish. These days Professor Forbes is unfazed, but remains fascinated by the intellectual puzzle.
She is also motivated by the memory of the victim and the needs of the family left behind. “Someone has to speak for the dead,” she said.
In an associated story: Thirty offer their corpses for a kind of AFTER life, Julie Power (SMH April 12, 2015), continues writing about the work of Shari Forbes: The facility is:
To be called the Australian Facility for Taphonomic Experimental Research (or AFTER for short), the facility to study the decomposition of human corpses will operate within a 48-hectare bush site owned by the University of Technology, Sydney (UTS) in the lower Blue Mountains.
The facility – the first in the southern hemisphere – will use only recently deceased corpses because it has been designed to study human decomposition in an Australian environment.
Professor Forbes said the ethical use of donated human cadavers for scientific studies was vital for the success of human death investigations here and overseas, including neighbouring countries where Australia sent emergency response teams in times of disaster.
“The scientists and police involved in this research are confronted by death on a regular basis and understand the moral and ethical significance of working with human cadavers, just like doctors and medical students,” she said.
For those who find this a rather distasteful ending, it is no more confronting than the sky burial practices of the Tibetans, where the corpse is placed on a rocky exposed site with the unspoken invitation of vultures to come and have their fill as part of the cycle of life and nature in the wider context.