Arts & Entertainment

Death's Acre by Dr. Bill Bass and Jon Jefferson

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Credits: Berkley Books
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In this quote from the Introduction to Death's Acre, Dr. Bill Bass and co-author Jon Jefferson's tale of the birth of the Body Farm on the University of Tennessee campus, renowned fiction writer, Patricia Cornwell exhibits one of Bass's defining characteristics, a quirky sense of humor. Bass himself notes as a professor of forensic anthropology that he infuses humor into many of his lectures and labs because the subject matter at hand, manners of decomposition in death, is about the farthest thing from pleasant one could get. Humor is vital for those involved in studying the dead in staying sane.

And as one reads this fascinating autobiography/anthroplogical study, he/she has to wonder how Dr. Bass and his many esteemed colleagues manage to stay sane as they gather data by observing and smelling rotting bodies as they decompose. Bass, who spent the early part of his career excavating the graves of the Arikara people in South Dakota, realized during his fourteen summers there, that in order to calculate time of death and cause of death, a truly scientific means to study how a human body decomposes needed to be established. The idea of creating an outdoor laboratory began to percolate in Bass's brain, an idea which eventually ended up in the founding of the controversial Anthropology Research Facility, otherwise known as “the Body Farm.”

In 1982 Bass, who had established himself as a leader in forensic anthropology, was asked to examine a few bones that were the remains of Charles Lindbergh, Jr. At that time the widow of Bruno Hauptmann, the man who had been executed for the kidnapping and murder of the “Eaglet,” (Lindbergh's son), was trying for a final time to clear her husband of the killing. Bass was asked to examine the handful of bones to see if he could determine anything about the cause of death that would refute the prosecution's theory of the case. Bass states, “Sitting in the basement of the New Jersey State Police headquarters on that day back in 1982, I found nothing in those ten small bones that could tell me anything about the Lindbergh baby I hadn't already known. Nothing to refute the evidence presented at Bruno Hauptman's murder trial. Nothing to vindicate the half-century of hope in the heart of his widow.” (p. 12)

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Hope is one of the motivations of the people who approach Bass to find answers as to what has happened to their loved ones, or very often in the case of police departments who ask Bass to help them identify a corpse and determine cause of death. Bass explains that every identification requires “the Big Four----sex, race, age, and stature.” (p.42) The studies of thousands of bodies over decades have given Bass and his disciples the tools by which the Big Four can be determined in even the most difficult of cases. For his prowess in identifying human remains, Bass has been named as a fellow of the American Academyy of Forensic Sciences and has served as president of the organizations physical anthropologoy section. (p.8)

Through the years of study at the Body Farm, Bass has learned the importance of things like taphonomy, “the arrangement of relative position of the human remains, artifacts, and natural elements like earth, leaves, and insect casings,” (p. 228) in deciphering a crime scene. Death's Acre sites many cases that were solved by Bass and his associates in studying the taphonomy of a scene, whether it was the remnants of a burned out building or car, or bodies found rotting in the woods.

While many people might be repulsed by reading Bass's graphic accounts of what happens to the human body upon the occurance of death, the success of many television shows today such as CSI, Criminal Minds, Forensic Files, Bones, and NCIS refute the premise that people are not interested in the most gruesome crime stories. Bass explains, “The average person would look at such jpictures, think My God, what a horrible sene, then turn away as quickly as possible. For me it's a completely different experience. Don't get me wrong: I abhor death . . . When I'm studying a crime scene, though, I never regard it as a death; to me, it's strictly a case. Everything I see and smeall is a source of data, a possible key to discovering the truth.” (p. 240)

Death's Acre is a compelling read, which tackles a subject that many of us don't like to think about too often, mortality. However, in reading about the work of Bass and his associates at the Body Farm, those of us who respect law and order, understand the challenges that those who are in law enforcement face in solving and prosecuting crime, and for those of us who have been victims in some way of violent crime, can't help but be grateful for the tenacity of Dr. Bass in his commitment to solving the seemingly unsolvable.

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