This story is about death and what happens to bodies during decomposition. The content, including video and photographs, may be disturbing to some readers.
Sherri Woodley grew up running around the woods outside Spokane, Washington, where she would often stumble across dead birds and insects that she liked to investigate. She once used a small rock to dissect a shiny dead beetle. She felt at home in the woods, and it nurtured her curiosity about death.
Woodley, 73, grew up and continued to have experiences that caused her to reflect on mortality. She married a hunter, and started fishing. After she shot her first deer, she was so overcome with guilt she spent a whole day in tears. She became a recreational airline pilot, and while taking off from Spokane one evening, she barely missed a head-on collision with a duck—which could have been fatal to her and her small plane. The experience, she said, made her “just about wet her pants.”
Then, in 2010, her stepdaughter Deanna died of breast cancer at 28, just six months after diagnosis. Woodley still has trouble describing that experience.
Woodley discovered a tumor deep in her own right breast a few years later, and received a cancer diagnosis. She plunged into the world of radiation, chemo, surgery, and medications that left her exhausted. Once the cancer had moved to her backbone and she was subsisting on Cream of Wheat, she decided enough was enough. She told her husband she was ready for end-of-life care and called hospice.
“When you stare at death in the face—you think you’re prepared, but you’re not. You catch a glimpse of death,” Woodley said, speaking from her home in Washington State. “I had to come to grips with it.”
Part of embracing her own mortality involved making a plan for what would happen to her body after she was gone. Chatting with her sister-in-law, who wanted to be laid to rest in a botanical garden, Woodley considered her own interest in a nontraditional burial. She did some research and decided that when her mortal life draws to a close, she’s “going to end up in the woods again.”
She’s still alive 11 months later. But when her time comes, she’ll find that resting place on the other side of the country at the body decomposition facility at Western Carolina University (WCU) in Cullowhee, North Carolina.
Since 2007, the Forensic Osteology Research Station (aptly abbreviated to FOREST) has offered researchers and students the opportunity to get up close with the realities of thanatology—the study of what happens to the human body after death.
At any given time, FOREST has about 15 donor bodies in some stage of decay. But interest in the facility—one of only about seven in the world—is increasing. Nick Passalacqua, the forensic anthropology facilities director at WCU, said this past year the facility had a record-breaking 32 donors.
“Many people want to donate their body to science but because of the way they died or how long it took them to be found after death, they might not be eligible,” Passalacqua said. “Med schools have very strict criteria, for example. We have much fewer restrictions for what we can take.”
Here on a 5,000-square-foot scrap of land on a hillside in the Blue Ridge Mountains, faculty members place recently deceased bodies on the clay-rich soil and leave them for observation. Students of forensic anthropology, forensic chemistry, criminal justice, osteology, and more drive to the end of a dirt road and slip behind a high wooden fence to observe these bodies and see what they can teach us.
For the past 150 years, the average American has considered embalming and coffins as the rites of a traditional burial. For the past half-century, they may have also considered cremation.
But burials that don’t rely on formaldehyde or fire are becoming increasingly popular. Part of that is financial. The median cost of burial in America is nearly $8,000, according to the National Funeral Directors Association. (In North Carolina, bodies that go unclaimed—which often occurs because of finances—are cremated and scattered at sea by the state.) Green burial, as many alternative measures are often called, tends to be much more affordable.
Part of the interest is also environmental. Traditional burial involves carcinogenic chemicals like formaldehyde, which the industry uses more than 800,000 gallons of every year. And traditional cemeteries are ecological wastelands that require heaps of water and fertilizer. Cremation is often touted as the responsible alternative, but this practice spews soot into the air, as well as mercury from anyone who dies with fillings in their mouths. A single cremation is estimated to release 600 pounds of carbon dioxide into the air.
Anne Weston, the founder of the Green Burial Project, a Hillsborough-based nonprofit that educates the public about alternate forms of interment, attributes this increased interest in green burial to a growing concern about the environment and a desire to make one’s last action on earth count.
“An awful lot of people who weren’t originally so environmentally conscious have been scorched in the summer and rained on to the point where their homes are washed away, and they have to believe that the climate is changing,” said Weston. “One thing we can do is stop with the burial practices that we have now.”
Our current way of thinking about death started during the Civil War, Weston explained. Families wanted their war-mutilated boys returned home, but the railroad companies refused to transport corpses in an “undignified” state, as Weston put it. Field embalming became a brisk business, and thus began our 150-year love affair with the practice of soaking our dead in formaldehyde, encasing them in fancy hardwood coffins, and secreting them in concrete vaults in lawn cemeteries.
But people like Weston are pushing alternatives. These days, options include aquamation, a process that made its way into the funeral industry in the past two decades that involves immersing a corpse in water and alkali, which liquifies everything but the bones (several funeral homes in North Carolina now offer this service).
They also include human composting, which uses natural materials to convert a human body into organic material that can nourish soil. Human composting, which was developed and researched at FOREST in the early 2010s, is now legal in eight states—but notably not North Carolina. Weston herself has overseen funerals where bodies are buried in biodegradable coffins in a backyard or other beloved natural place.
Body donation is yet another option.
“When you think about it, donating your body to a facility like ours is probably the greenest you can go,” Passalacqua said.
In addition to teaching students and researching decomposition, WCU helps law enforcement discern what happens when, say, a body is lost in the woods. They also run a cadaver-dog training program.
That was a big reason Sherri Woodley, a dog lover, decided to donate her body there. If somebody with cancer is lost in the woods someday, she theorizes, maybe her body will help the cadaver dogs find them.
On a cold, humid mid-February day, Becca George arrived on campus before 8 a.m. George, a friendly, sardonic 30-something who wears a hot pink K9 sweatshirt, is the curator of the FOREST facility.
She was there to prepare for an afternoon presentation to officials from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives about the effect of fire and bullets on cadavers. As part of this research, she and her colleagues had burned and shot a recent donor.
George said she pursued this career path because of what she calls the CSI effect. The show premiered when she was in seventh grade, and she was captivated by the idea that women could have a role in this field. She got her undergrad degree at Knoxville and completed her master’s degree and doctorate on the West Coast, studying dental remains (“I really like teeth,” she said).
Now she’s running FOREST, which on that day included laying out a sheet of dark green velvet and arranging a donor’s singed bones on it like she was setting up for a board game. The blackened skull balanced on a cheerful round pillow and the vertebrae, which resemble wood ear mushrooms, were tied up with white twine.
After that was done, it was time to drive off campus past the locked fence where she and an undergraduate student preparing a skeletonized donor to leave the field and come into the lab.
When a donor arrives at the FOREST facility, they are placed either in the surface enclosure, where decomposition takes about a year, or buried in another enclosure, where decomposition can take up to five years. Through photographs and in-person observation, George and her students monitor the process of decomposition from the impact of scavengers to the emitted smells to the relationship between decomposition and atmospheric conditions.
This is why it’s essential to have decomposition facilities in different parts of the country; bodies deteriorate differently. One of America’s most famous facilities, at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, is located in suburban flatland; another is at Texas State, in hill country.
Inside the surface enclosure, skeletons lay in white metal cages, each labeled with a yellow tag to differentiate them. Some donors lay under black tarps weighted down by rocks and bricks, skulls peeking out.
“The possums had a little fun last night,” said George wryly. Vultures orbited overhead.
The most recent donor had arrived in January. His body lay uncovered to the moist air, his remains swollen from leaking gases. A bird had pecked the sprawling torso and the hands and feet were spread out along the ground. To a layperson, it was a shocking scene. (George’s only rule: no puking.)
Woodley, who plans to end up there, knows it’s an unusual thing to desire. “The first word that comes to mind is macabre,” she said. “And they’re right. Death is not pretty. It’s weather-driven. It’s driven by things of the earth. Bloat is common. To be quite frank, you’re invaded by everything from small insects to worms. Your bones are scattered. You change color.
“Thank goodness you’re not alive, let’s put it that way.”
George and her undergraduate assistant, Ali Bridges, are well-accustomed to the sights and smells, arranging their tools and getting to work. The donor they were preparing to bring inside had lain out in the enclosure for a year. While the sun had bleached the bones, all the tissue hadn’t yet decomposed. George decided to bring the body in and remove the tissue manually.
She and Bridges crouched in their hiking boots, wielding kitchen scissors. The smell of gastric juices and decaying biological matter wafted through the enclosure. When this donor first arrived at FOREST at the end of 2021, the weather was cooler than it was this winter, so the donor’s feet had essentially mummified. Using kitchen scissors, George and Bridges hacked away at the ankles, separating leathery tissue from bones. A vulture’s feather, a calling card from the carrion overhead, floated along the muck.
Bridges said she decided to attend WCU because she was interested in pursuing a career in medicine, which led her to the forensic anthropology program.
“On the first day, you kind of take everything in. You get used to what’s going on,” said Bridges, who has long hair parted down the middle and wears athletic clothes. “You just adjust and get into a mindset where it doesn’t bother you too much.” The program is famous among the students at WCU, and she said her friends at school are fascinated by her work, although she described her family as “confused” by it.
She and George pulled the dirty, stiff wires of a pacemaker from the donor. They examined the ribs, which were punctured by metal stitches—signs of open-heart surgery. They organized all the bones by type to make it easier to check parts off the inventory sheet. The hands were missing, though: the possums had made short work of them.
The next stop for a donor body is the lab, where students remove any remaining tissue (to do so, they use grooming products popular with the living, like eyebrow tweezers).
They wash the bones—with just water, since bones are porous and washing them with soap is akin to putting dishwashing liquid on your fancy wooden salad bowls. Then they arrange them, dried and neat, in printer paper boxes in a storage room, where anyone who receives permission from the university can study them. Sometimes, family members will even visit; one family recently celebrated the holidays with the skeleton of their deceased loved one.
In 21st century America, we have certain ideas about how to treat the dead with respect, ideas born of cultural norms enshrined more than a century ago. The average person—myself included—might experience a visceral reaction to the sight of a body uncovered in the woods rather than safely treated with formaldehyde and ensconced in a stately coffin and a vault.
Woodley said that when she tells people about her post-death plans, many balk. “It’s a challenge to tell others about this and convince them that it’s a good thing to do,” she explained.
But in her role as mentor and teacher, George has a second rule after no puking: treat the donors with respect and obey any stipulations put in place by the donors before death (a donor may say, for example, that they don’t want their body burned or placed in water). In George’s view, these are still people, up to and including when they are tucked away in those printer paper boxes. George plans to someday donate her own body to California State University, Chico, where she attended grad school.
As she worked, she chatted with the donors as if they could respond. As the smell of decay wafted through the enclosure, she turned around and glared at the two tarp-covered bodies behind her as if they’d passed gas. “Who’s doing that?” she said. “Fess up.”
Some of the donors at FOREST signed the paperwork and committed to spending their afterlives in the facility before they died. Others ended up there because they expressed vague wishes to donate their body to science, and after death, family members found FOREST. George also occasionally receives calls from families who don’t want to pay for a burial, who are derisive or uncaring about what happens to the deceased. She scoffs recalling those calls. When those donors arrive at FOREST, she comforts them, explaining, “You’re in a community now.”
It could be that green burial practices discomfit the wider population not because they are disrespectful, but because they are ultimately honest. Weston, the green burial champion, recently helped a family lay out their dead loved one in their family living room for several days without the help of an embalmer.
“I think people are put off by decomposition,” Woodley said. “I think it scares them. They would rather just be put in the ground or cremated and it never dawns on them that they’re sort of going through the same process. Eventually there’s going to be a breakdown. It’s hard to unwind that in someone’s head.”
When Woodley dies, her husband will notify their local funeral home, who will transport her to Spokane, where she will be flown to Greensboro. A local funeral director will pick her up and drive her to her final resting place.
It’s certainly a different, more purpose-driven way of thinking about death.
“I can’t assure you that it’s going to be pretty. It won’t be pretty,” said Woodley. “I can’t say I’m excited about going there, but I feel very comfortable going there.”
At FOREST, the truth about what will happen to all of us is blatant beneath the dying trees (it turns out that corpses aren’t good for nearby vegetation).
Emily Cataneo is a writer and journalist based in Raleigh. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The Guardian, Slate, Atlas Obscura, Undark, and many other venues. She is a co-founder of Raleigh’s Redbud Writing Project.