Thursday, March 15, 2012

Honoring the Dead: Inside A Body Farm Memorial Service

When Dr. Bill Bass founded the Body Farm back in the 1980's it was the first of its kind.

Since then, hundreds of people have donated their bodies and law enforcement and researchers from across the globe have traveled to East Tennessee to gather information they can't find anywhere else on earth.

Now after three decades of saving, fundraising and planning, UT's famous anthropology department has a new place to call home. The department's new building, the Bass Forensic Anthropology Building has everything students need including stainless steel autopsies tables, a walk-in cooler, separate work areas, even a laundry facility and locker rooms.

That is pretty impressive when you consider the anthropology department started with a few left over rooms in Neyland Stadium. "And we started with eight rooms in the second floor, and we know have probably 160, 180 rooms - We've gone from a three person department to I think, there's 22 PHD's in the department right now," said Bass.

The multi-dollar project took several years to complete. It is paid for in part by Bass' own money, the profit he made from his Body Farm Novel's written under the pen name, Jefferson Bass.

In the last few weeks, students and staff started moving into the building. Dr. Bass said the first lesson in the building could be the most important lesson the anthropology department will ever teach. A lesson of compassion, of appreciation and of respect for the dead.

As part of the Bass Building's official christening, Dr. Bass planned a service to respectfully pay tribute to the other men and women who made the building possible. However, those people are not the financial donors, but the people who gave something money can't buy.

With a bible worn from years of prayer and praise, a UT chaplain recited holy words so many hold dear. At first it looks like any other memorial service, but in fact it is UT anthropology students sitting in for grieving family members and a red rose and a lace draped cardboard box to replace a traditional coffin.

Inside of the box rests the remains of a single Body Farm donor. One of many who chose to give their last worldly possession all for the greater good of those still living. "It's not the traditional end of life that a lot of people offer, but this is offering so much more to the future of science - and hopefully will help a lot of families with a lot of unknowns," said UT Undergrad student Jake Smith.

"Individuals who have contributed their bodies to this collection, really are serving science," said Dr. Bass.

The single set of remains represent the hundreds of Body Farm donors from over the years and it is their sacrifices that Bass said make the facilities one of a kind, world renowned research possible. "We have one staff member now who's major research is in DNA and we are now getting samples from these individuals when they come in that we can do DNA and look at body types and things like this that is, absolutely cutting edge, it's brand new research that has never been done and it can only be done here. I hate to say it like that, because it's sounds like I'm bragging but I'm not, this is a very, very important collection these individuals needs to be reward for their gift," said Bass.

For that priceless gift, those at the ceremony offered one final word of appreciation in the form of a prayer for the families of the dead.

As well as a simple explanation from the man who's work started it all. "These are people who, dedicated their life to helping other people, and there are a few of them, of us, who have said, well, why should I stop when I die?" said Bass.

The ceremony itself dates back to the Body Farm's early days. "Dr. Bass came to me and said, we have this, these bones and we've had a number of these bones for years, and we've never done a service for them," said George Doebler, UT Medical Center Chaplain.

With the souls on his heart, Dr. Bass set up a ceremony modeled in a way he believes the donors would want. "This being a Christian nation, and most of the people we get would be Christian faith - I didn't pick a Baptist or a Methodist or a Presbyterian - I picked a hospital Chaplin - who tend to be non denominational I reckon you'd say," said Dr. Bass.

This is something he is proud of and plans to continue for years to come within his department. When it is time, he said he will also pass along that final gift like so many Body Farm donors have. "I may in my case, do this as a cremation, we have a cremation collection also," said Bass.

Helping another generation of students, learn, remember and say thanks.


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