“Cold-body” forensics coming

AnnMarie Kent

You pass through security gates and leaves crunch beneath your feet as you walk through foliage. You look to your left and the body of a young woman lies lifeless, hair tangled in the brambles.

You look to your right and see stark white bones against soil. You need to figure out how and when these people died. This could be your classroom.

NMU is hoping to develop a forensic anthropology program that would bring an outdoor forensic facility. The site would be one of only six forensic research facilities in the country and seven in the world. These facilities make it possible for students and faculty to study the decomposition of bodies.

Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs, Kerri Schuiling said the declining enrollment in the criminal justice department led to the idea of bringing a forensic anthropology research site to NMU.

“Each of the facilities is extremely helpful because it’s so critical to build this science,” Schuiling said.“The idea behind the research site is having the ability to create crime scenes for students to study bodies and pioneer research on decomposition.”

Schuiling said this kind of science is fairly new and not a lot is known about how different geographical areas affect a decomposing body. All the other facilities in the world are in warm weather so the NMU site would be the first facility to research the effects of freezing and thawing on a body.

Alan Mcevoy, head of the department of anthropology and sociology, said a lot of the interest comes from TV shows like “CSI” and books about the topic.

“Students themselves are demanding more courses that would fill this niche and how to do crime scene investigation,” McEvoy said.

The demand for such a site is coming from a number of different places though, McEvoy said. The site could also be used by the local police academy for field training—biology students will have access to cadavers, photography students can get experience with crime scene photography and sculpture students could help with facial reconstruction.

The location for the site has not been chosen yet. Scott Demel, associate professor of anthropology, said they have certain criteria when looking at locations. This includes accessibility, security, remoteness and flexibility of being able to put the bodies out.

Demel said they will spend a few years creating a baseline for how the bodies decompose in the open.

“Then you can start to try other scenarios like putting someone in the trunk of a car, a shallow grave or a deep grave,” Demel said. “You look at variation after the baseline is established.”

The winter will create a unique set of difficulties for recording data, Demel said. They will need to be able to record the decomposition process but as the snow covers the body, it will be harder to take those records without disrupting the process.