SAN MARCOS, Texas -- On a small patch of Texas Hill Country, not far from a herd of billy goats, there is a resting place of sorts called the “Body Ranch.”
It is a place where people have donated their bodies to forensic science. Or, more precisely, it is where people have agreed to have their bodies placed in the open – laid bare in the relentless heat, vultures circling — so that researchers can document how they decompose.
“One of the first things a vulture will do is take the eyes out,” says Danny Wescott, head of the Forensic Anthropology Center at Texas State University in San Marcos.
There is good reason to document such things, says Wescott, and it’s not to gross people out. Instead, Wescott and his anthropology students attempt to unlock the mysteries about what happens to people who have been cast aside …hidden in the outside elements, sometimes for years … after falling victim to murder or mass tragedy.
“They’re laid out on their backs, unclothed, so we can document this,” said Wescott, standing in a field of tall grass and decomposing bodies. “Our students then come out. Every day they photograph the remains, they write notes about the insect activity …the stage of decomposition.”
What is learned at the Body Ranch is then used in courtrooms across the country, by forensic investigators who hold the key that can convict a killer; or free the falsely accused.
So who would agree to leave their bodies to what some call a “vulture research” program? Grady Early, a retired math and computer science professor at Texas State, is a willing participant – but only after he dies. “I’d rather be in a box in a lab being useful, than in a box in the ground, just taking up real estate,” said Early, whose recently deceased mother, Lillian, is already a part of the program.
“My mother always felt everybody ought to be useful in life,” he said. “And if you could be useful after death as well, she thought that would be great.”
Wescott realizes some people will feel his operation is being disrespectful of the dead, even if everyone at the body ranch agreed – while living – to be a part of the project. “I’m always conscious of the fact that these people were just like you or I,” he said, as he sat at a table where a full skeleton had been reassembled. Wescott added, “Part of what I’m trying to do is bring their story back to life.”
After all, one day, hopefully not in the near future, Wescott plans to join them. “When I die, my body will be donated to science, and to a forensic anthropology facility.”