This was my favorite article to report and write in the past two years. Seriously, it was that interesting. I first learned of the Forensic Osteological Research Station (FOReSt) at Western Carolina University in Cullowhee while reading Cat Warren’s amazing book, What the Dog Knows: The Science and Wonder of Working Dogs. Though it was only a small scene in which she and her cadaver-sniffing dog trained at the FOReSt site, I dog-eared the page and knew that I wanted to write a story about this amazing facility where the dead are studied as they decompose. Here’s the story, which first appeared Sept. 1 in The Observer (Charlotte) with 650+ Facebook likes and counting! and the News & Observer (Raleigh):
When people die, Cheryl Johnston’s work begins. A forensic anthropologist at Western Carolina University, Johnston oversees one of our nation’s six human decomposition facilities. On a mountain slope near WCU’s main campus, recently deceased donors are respectfully, but intentionally, laid to rest on the sun-dappled forest floor. Over a year’s time, their bodies are exposed to light, rain, humidity, heat, cold, wind and wildlife. Beneath stands of mature tulip poplar, locust, oak and walnut trees they decompose until nothing remains but bone.
Medical students routinely dissect cadavers to master human anatomy and develop skills to help the living. But people are less likely to know that forensic anthropology students, and professionals, need to study human decomposition processes to interpret and solve real-life scenarios involving recovery of human remains. From murders to mishaps, forensic anthropologists unravel how a person died and what happened to their remains after death. Continue reading