GRAND JUNCTION, Colo. (KKCO/KJCT)-- You've probably driven by it dozens of times on your way to Delta.
Colorado Mesa University has a body farm, right next to the Mesa County landfill. It's a place where students can study the decomposition of bodies.
"We give them a lot of responsibility, they like having the responsibility,” said Melissa Connor, Director of the Forensic Investigation Research Station.
There are only seven body farms in the United States. This station in Whitewater is one of three that allow undergrads.
“This gives students hands-on opportunity to work with decomposition research, decomposition of human remains,” said Connor.
"I think the bones are kind of interesting because you can see a lot of the variation in skeletal remains that tells something about the person,” said Anniina Kuha, international student studying biology and archaeology at the Forensic Investigation Research Station.
Bodies are donated to the program. Students leave them in a fenced-in area so wildlife can't get in. Students say they can tell what season the person died in because of the type of flies and insects found in the body.
"There is a change seasonally with what flies you see and that can give you information about, well maybe you don't know exactly, when this person died, like how many years ago, but you see evidence that this species of fly is there. So, maybe it was in the colder season,” said Alex Smith, anthropology graduate and volunteer at the Forensic Investigation Research Station.
Their state of the art facility is attracting students from around the world.
"In Finland, we don't have these kind of opportunities to handle real human remains,” said Kuha.
CMU offers four forensic minors. All those students will get to see the FIRS station at least once. They can offer to intern or volunteer in their junior and senior years.
"Here since it's such an arid climate the remains out here don't skeletonize as quickly as you would see elsewhere. So you still see tissue, like beyond the skeletal remains you still see tissue for years after the person has died,” said Smith.
"Then we take the remains and clean them up to skeletons so that people can study the skeletons and it gives us a modern population of skeletons and not casts,” said Connor.
Melissa's students have moved on to jobs around the world, including in coroners offices and crime scene investigators.
They just opened a second body farm location in Park County near Fairplay and say they will be helping the coroner’s office there.
For more details about FIRS click the link to the right of this article.