Frozen Forensics: Northern Michigan University program studies human remains

Michigan

MARQUETTE, Mich. (WJMN) — Somewhere in Marquette County lies a secret facility.

“We don’t talk about the exact location of the site,” Dr. Jane Harris, director of the Forensic Research Outdoor Station (FROST) at Northern Michigan University, said. “But it is known to a lot of the local people. It’s not a well-kept secret. But if somebody doesn’t already know where it is, I have no intentions of telling them where it is. You are not going to stumble on it. It’s not going to happen.”

Harris says it’s kept a secret out of respect for those inside the facility.

“Our donors are not spectacles,” she continued. “We are stewards of their final disposition. We’ll always be respectful to them. It’s not respectful of anyone to have someone peeking in where they’re not supposed to see. Living or dead, it’s inappropriate.”

An 8-foot fence with barbed wire around the top helps keep the facility secure. Plastic slats and a layer of fabric inside the fences further protects the privacy of those donors inside. With cameras along the fence, Northern Michigan University police are able to monitor who comes around. Trail cameras are also set up inside the facility.

Harris said she is always aware of anything or anyone that would have gotten in to the facility. So far, there have been no problems with privacy or security.

So what is Frost? Why all the secrecy? Who are the donors?

FROST is a facility to study forensic taphonomy.

“That means that we are looking at all of the things that happen to a human body after death,” Harris added. “It is an outdoor facility, so we are studying environmental effects and microbes, even some insects. There’s even the potential for some scavenging, but we’re trying to limit that as much as possible because we want to be protective of our donors.”

So what are the applications of this study?

“It’s based on cases where if an unknown victim is found, how long have they been there?” Harris explained. “So how do we get from their current condition that would have been right around the time of their death. Then who was associated with them at the time It helps the investigation move forward.”

The donors Harris is referring to are the bodies of people who have consented to having their remains studied.

“We accept both self-donors and next-of-kin donors,” Harris continued. “A lot of our self-donors are … former law enforcement, a couple of former prosecutors, people who have worked with criminal cases in the past and know the value of forensic science. They know they want to be part of both research that would help advance forensic science and also helping to teach future generations of forensic. They are very well aware of what they want to have happen.”

Pre-donors or people who sign up to eventually donate their bodies are interested in it for the scientific aspect. Harris said somealso know it’s a kind of natural alternative to burial, embalming or cremating.

“Our donations are forever donations. So our donors are eventually incorporated into our laboratory where our skeletal remains are permanently curated to teach with,” Harris said, adding, “They get into this knowing they’re going to go through these natural processes and that they’ll be able to teach. They’re always going to be part of something. I think it’s kind of a neat way to continue on, long after your consciousness isn’t there any more.”

The only donors they don’t accept are from the medical examiner’s office. Those would be unclaimed or unidentified people.

“Because our donors are deceased and not fixed or embalmed in any way. They’re not prepared. I guess by definition, you’d say they are corpses. That takes the humanity away from them,” Harris continued. “So my students are very much trained to refer to them as our donors, because that keeps that personhood there.”

Harris said many times people have preconceived notions of what the facility is going to be. She said it’s nothing like what people have read about or seen on their favorite crime shows.

“We are very deliberate in what we do,” she said. “We have very specific things we look at and ways we collect our data. I am very particular with how my research team interacts with the donors and how they treat our donors. Also, how they interact with each other when they’re out at the facility. There’s very high standards for conduct and ethics.”

The program has been in the works at Northern Michigan University since 2015. They found land and space, then they needed someone to lead the program. Harris was that person. She was brought on in August 2017.

“We started accepting body donations in 2018 and our program involving students and even some external researchers started then and we’ve been on an upward trajectory since then,” Harris said.

She brings a variety of talent and experience to the University and the program.

“I had been working in a forensic lab and being a death investigator,” Harris added. “So my familiarity with it came with my breadth of experience and my ability to communicate with the law enforcement community and the academic community.”

Her special set of skills served as the foundation to build FROST.

“My discipline then is under physical biology or biological anthropology. I study more of the way how people live affect their bodies,” she said. “My specific expertise is the skeleton. I can look at things like healed fractures and what does that tell me about the person. I can look at different aspects of health based on things we see in the skeleton.”

Harris said she’s aware are of only 11 fully functioning facilities like FROST in the world, nine of which are in the U.S. There are also facilities in Quebec, Australia, and the Netherlands. She said nearly all of these are surface-level facilities, which means the donors are left above ground, not buried. The exception is the facility in the Netherlands, which fully buries the bodies because of an ordinance.

“Our name kind of speaks to what makes it special,” Harris said. “We are in an area, partly because of our latitude and also partly because of the lake where we get a lot more snow and we have a much more prolonged winter with very cold temperatures for an extended period of time. Our focus is to study forensic taphonomy. So the things that are happening to a human body after death in this environment where we have very cold temperatures for a very long time and a lot of snow.”

These kind of studies have been done in other places. What’s different is looking at the results of those same studies, and the results in our region.

“My favorite aspect of being in the facility is yes, we are building on this research that we can contribute to the larger forensic community,” Harris continued. “Even something that has been done a million times in other places, hasn’t been done here. So anytime we do it here, it’s the first time it’s being done. We can kind of introduce that back into the scientific literature and show how what it is we’re looking at is different or the same for different regions. I think that’s really great.”

One goal is to share the data collected with other facilities around the country who experience different kinds of weather.

The research is just now starting to get to a point where they can study the data collected and to do some real analysis. Harris said the program is still so new they aren’t quite at a place where they can make a statement about findings, yet.

“We’re working on something now where we’ll be able to put out a scale where people who live and work in snowy environments will be able to use what we can put out there and determine that time since death a little more predictably than the scale people use in warmer climates.”

So who’s doing the research at Frost?

“What I think the beauty of what we’re doing right now is, is that I’m involving undergraduate students in the work,” Harris said. “I’ve got some really great research projects going on and I’ve got students getting very engaged with that type of material.”

Nursing, biology, environmental sciences, are just some of the programs collaborating with FROST.

“I think one of the things people assume with our facility since we’re in the anthropology department is that you have to be an anthropology major to work with us. That’s just not the case,” Harris continued, “It’s such a neat place to be, because it allows us to be curious and it allows us to explore what we’re curious about. I really encourage students to come up with innovative projects.”

Harris introduced a new course this spring where students will learn the functional parts of the data collection team. The data collection team is separate from the research. So as long as Harris speaks with other professors, research projects could originate in any department. She wants it to be multi-disciplinary.

“Maybe anthropology is not your thing, but you really want to be a biologist and work with this facility somehow. That’s absolutely what this is for.”

Harris said she hopes to one day expand to a second site to possibly involve water or a forested area.

“Michigan has a lot of fresh water lakes. There isn’t a whole lot of information about what happens to people who go missing in those lakes. If we could build a research program that could help inform that, we might be able to help some of our missing person searches and things and get some of those people found who we just don’t understand those processes as well.”

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