As It Happens

Canada's 1st forensics body farm is coming this summer

The facility opening this summer in Quebec will help scientists study human decomposition in a northern climate. But as Shari Forbes explains, working at the body farm isn’t for the faint of heart.

The new facility in Quebec will let scientists study human decomposition in a northern climate

Dr. Shari Forbes and her colleagues on a forensic farm in Australia. Now Forbes is helping to establish a similar facility in Quebec. (Anna Zhu/UTS Science)

Shari Forbes isn't at all squeamish about her work. 

As a forensic expert in thanatology, the study of death, she spends her days focused on decomposing human bodies — examining how insects eat flesh, when they lay their eggs, and even how cadaver dogs pick up a corpse's odour.

"I've certainly learned to have a strong stomach," she told As It Happens host Carol Off.  "It's required in this kind of research."

Forbes is helping establish Canada's first forensics body farm, an outdoor facility where human bodies are left to decay and scientists study the process. It will open this summer in Bécancour, near Trois-Rivières, Que.

The research done there will help forensic scientists understand decomposition, and will ultimately help investigators better determine time of death in homicide investigations.

Decomposition in a Canadian climate

The facility in Bécancour is officially known as the Secure Site for Research in Thanatology, but is commonly referred to as a forensic farm, or a body farm. 

Forbes is the director of the facility, and says that the Quebec farm is unique because it lets scientists and police observe decomposition in a northern climate.

Forbes is the director of Canada's first body farm. (Anna Zhu/UTS Science)

"The rate of decomposition will be almost completely dictated by the environment the body is in," Forbes said.

For example, bodies left in Australia's hot and dry climate — which is also home to a body farm — will mummify. But it will be different in Quebec, she said.

"I anticipate that bodies will preserve in winter here, but we do need to be able to confirm to police what will happen," she said.

Work essential to homicide cases

Learning how human bodies decompose in different climates can influence how scientists determine time of death, which can affect police investigations. 

Not being able to narrow down an accurate time of death can slow an investigation, Forbes said.

"The purpose of our research is to assist the police," she said.

"We will recreate scenarios that they request. They could request a shallow burial to mimic a victim of homicide, or they could request that a donor is simply placed on the ground to mimic a missing person."

The scientists will protect the bodies from scavengers, she said, but otherwise place them as naturally as possible in the environment. Then they monitor them and collect data on a daily basis.

Forbes, right, and her colleague do work at a forensic farm in Australia. (Anna Zhu/UTS Science)

One of the key things they'll be watching for is insects.

Flies lay eggs on decomposing bodies, and scientists can look at the life stage of the insects to determine how long a body has been there.

"Of course, it does assume that insects are present," Forbes said. "And in the middle of winter in Quebec, that's not the case. It's why we need to have other methods as well."

[The residents] understand the importance of our research, and the science behind what we do.- Dr. Shari Forbes, forensic scientist 

The nearby community has been very supportive, Forbes said, though they did need to be assured that the odour wouldn't carry.

"They understand the importance of our research," she said, "and the science behind what we do."

The farm has also had people contact them wanting to donate their bodies upon death, Forbes said. 

People seem to understand that they're assisting police, as well as victims of crime and their families, she said. 

"I can understand why they would want to contribute to that."

Written by Menaka Raman-Wilms. Interview with Shari Forbes produced by Sarah Jackson.