Some of death’s mysteries explored at Canada’s only 'body farm'

Deep in a patch of woods on the outskirts of the city of Becancour lies a field surrounded by a barbed-wire fence. Video cameras surveil the area, which is near Trois-Rivieres and kept a secret.

This is the “Secure Site for Research in Thanatology.” It is the only “body farm” of its kind in Canada.

“We don’t understand how a body decomposes in the many different climates of the world,” said Shari Forbes, the site’s director. “And particularly we don’t know how that works in Canada.”

Since August, five bodies donated to science have been decomposing at the site. They are kept in the open air but under cages to prevent scavengers from getting to them.

“We put them in a very natural position, one that would recreate what police would potentially search for,” Forbes said.

The research at the site can help police with everything from murder investigations to searching for missing persons. In studying a body, forensic investigators often analyze the insects that nest in it – and knowledge of insect life cycles can determine how long someone has been dead. The challenge in Canada, said Julie-Eleonore Maisonhaute, is twofold. “We don’t necessarily know which species we have,” she said, adding that in subzero temperatures bodies generally won’t contain insects either.

Establishing the farm required a sheaf of permits and consultation from the city’s council. Councillors and citizens initially voiced some concern over the potential for odours or whether the site would be sanitary. Forbes and her team assuaged both concerns.

Forbes compares the sort of work she does to the popular television show CSI.

“We can’t do that work as fast or as glamourous as TV,” she said. “But it is actually that interesting.”

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