Giving One’s All for Forensic Science

At the Marshall Defense Firm, we follow the news in forensic science. Research in DNA matching, semen detection, estimating ages of fractures and bruises, and errors of human memory—these are at times central to our cases defending persons accused of sexual assault, child abuse, and domestic violence.

Forensic scientists working for law enforcement have had a rough decade. For example, the FBI has acknowledged that its experts in hair follicle comparison have overstated the similarities in hundreds of criminal cases. No one knows how many innocent people may have gone to prison because of that.

Now another branch of forensic science, forensic anthropology, has been shown to be long on assumptions and short on actual science. I read about this in The New York Times.

Forensic scientists estimating when a decomposing human died have long relied on studies of the decomposition of pigs. But only now has anyone bothered to compare the decomposition rate of a substantial number of actual human corpses with rates for pigs. The finding: they don’t match.

Fifteen humans donated their corpses to the University of Tennessee’s Forensic Anthropology Center. It left them outdoors, in a place accessible to scavenger animals—five corpses each in spring, summer, and autumn. The researchers also left out, at the same time in the same tract, 15 dead pigs and 15 dead rabbits. Not only did they find pigs not a good predictor of human decomposition; they found much variety among the humans. For example, humans with a lot of body fat decomposed faster.

Accompanying the news story is a photograph of two researchers looking at a well-scavenged human skeleton.

This photo turned my thoughts to a personal decision I made long ago. I think my decision was motivated partly by conservationism and partly by a desire for immortality in whatever form I might achieve it. I decided that I would like my corpse to return to nature. I have instructed my family, for example, that if I drown in deep water or am buried deep in a landslide, I’d prefer they leave my corpse—my legacy of organic matter—to find its way, bit by bit, one way or another, back into life forms.

I had considered that this might mean having animals gobble me up. I’m OK with that (provided they make sure I’m dead first). But I’d envisioned this happening, you might say, in private. I hadn’t imagined scientists coming out into the woods each day to see how much of me had been transferred to new users in the preceding 24 hours. I’ll admit that seems a bit macabre to me. I admire the 15 souls who gave the Tennessee researchers permission to do that.