AMSTERDAM—A vacant lot near a Kentucky Fried Chicken franchise here will soon host research that might make you lose your appetite. Amsterdam's Academic Medical Center (AMC) announced last week that it has obtained a permit to open Europe’s first taphonomical cemetery, a place where scientists can study the decomposition of human corpses under natural conditions. Such research can help forensic investigators, for instance when they're trying to determine how long ago a body was buried.
The 500-square-meter burial ground will open later this year, says Roelof-Jan Oostra, an anatomist at AMC. Bodies donated to science will be interred in graves up to 1 meter deep, along with instruments that can carry out chemical analyses without disturbing the grave. The cemetery can be used by researchers from AMC as well as from Dutch universities, the Netherlands Forensic Institute, and the police.
Six similar facilities—most of them much larger—already exist in the United States, where they are often called "body farms," a term that Oostra says he avoids because he considers it disrespectful to the dead. The University of Technology Sydney last year opened the Australian Facility for Taphonomic Experimental Research, situated in an undisclosed location near Sydney; there are plans for a facility in the United Kingdom as well.
Why so many? "I think there are very good reasons to open one in Holland, and in other places in Europe," says Dawnie Steadman, the director of the Forensic Anthropology Center at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, the oldest of the U.S. centers. The geography of crime is important, because local ecology and climate exert a strong influence on the speed and type of decomposition, Steadman says. “What we do in Tennessee is not directly transferable to Holland, or England, or South America, or Africa for that matter."
At the U.S. body farms, some bodies are buried but others are left to decompose above ground. That won't happen at the Dutch facility. "There isn't a lot of space in the Netherlands to just leave a body around, so most murderers bury their victims," Oostra says. Leaving bodies unburied at the new facility would also create additional security issues—for one, people might try to film them using drones—and the stench would be a problem in the densely populated area, Oostra adds.
Steadman says both types of studies are needed. One particularly interesting new field of study for buried bodies, she says, is the influence of soil microbes, which can vary widely from one place to the next, on decomposition. "We're just beginning to analyze that," she says.