Date of Award

12-2012

Degree Type

Thesis

Degree Name

Master of Arts

Major

Anthropology

Major Professor

Gregory V. Button

Committee Members

Tricia Redeker Hepner, Amy Z. Mundorff

Abstract

The Anthropological Research Facility (ARF), commonly known as the “Body Farm,” provides a unique research setting in which researchers work intimately with human remains in various stages of decomposition. While the ARF, and forensic anthropology, is well documented in popular culture, little academic research has been conducted to investigate the sociocultural phenomena associated with working with human remains.

This thesis investigates the reactions and attitudes toward death of those involved in operational and administrative duties at the ARF focusing on how these attitudes influence and are influenced by involvement at the facility. This research also provides a point of departure from which to interpret the relationship between the science of death and cultural attitudes toward death, the feminization of forensic anthropology, and public interest in the discipline.

Ethnographic methods including participant observation and interviews were the primary procedures of data collection in this study. Participant observation was conducted in various activities including intake (collection of body donations from regional funeral homes and forensic centers), placement of body donations at the ARF, and recovery (retrieval of body donations from the ARF after decomposition research is complete). Interviews were used to assess participants’ reactions to the nature of their work and their attitudes toward death. Participants were comprised of individuals involved with various aspects of the ARF including the coordinator, assistant coordinator, former and current faculty and graduate students representing a cross-sectional sample varying by age, length and degree of involvement at the ARF, and profession.

This thesis shows that attitudes among ARF personnel simultaneously reflect and deviate from cultural norms regarding handling human remains; the dead body represents both a scientific object and a symbol of mortality. Furthermore, public interest in and the feminization of forensic anthropology are informed by cultural attitudes toward death including fears of and fascination with death and dying. This study underscores the importance of understanding the sociocultural consequences produced from scientific and technological discovery and the importance of reflexive inquiry.

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