Bodies Get Picked Clean By Vultures In The Name Of Science

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The Forensic Anthropology Center run by Texas State University, in San Marcos, Texas, is one of the few "body farms" in the United States, where people donate their bodies to aid in crime and anthropological research.

The bodies are left outdoors to decompose (in a process called excarnation), and all stages are vigorously documented.

Alex Mar visited the lab, which is just a short drive from the center of San Marcos, on a working ranch.

"You have fields, just open fields, where recently deceased human bodies have been laid out for scientific study," she tells Here & Now's Peter O'Dowd.

One of the researchers' most popular experiments is the so-called vulture study, where bodies are picked clean by the birds.

Mar said after word of the vulture study got out, one out of three donor inquiries the lab received asked specifically to be part of the vulture study.

"Something about this ritual taps into something that's also relevant in some part of this country," Mar said.

The practice of "sky burials" is  found in some Native American and Buddhist traditions.

"It's not legal in this country, but it's happening by default for scientific rather than spiritual reasons in San Marcos," Mar said.

Mar said working on the story did change her, although she wouldn't want to donate herself.

"It made me think that wouldn't it be ideal if there were some way we could all have a more natural sense of death, as just another part of the life cycle," she said.


  • Alex Mar, journalist who recently chronicled the FACTS lab for Oxford American. She tweets @_alex_mar.

This segment aired on October 13, 2014.


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