However shocking it is to the mainstream American sensibility, deliberate excarnation (or de-fleshing) is also a practice with a history—a spiritual practice sometimes referred to as “sky burial.” After death, the bodies of many Tibetan Buddhists are partially flayed and left exposed on a mountaintop for birds and animals to consume. The Parsis of India, a Zoroastrian population clustered around Mumbai, place their dead atop Towers of Silence to be picked clean by vultures. And certain Native American tribes once left their dead on elevated platforms to be excarnated. While the AP article revealed that many Americans are deeply unsettled by body-farm donation (no great surprise), its outing of the vulture study also exposed an unexpected, if rarefied, desire in this country: FACTS [the Forensic Anthropology Center] began receiving calls from potential donors requesting to be consumed by vultures. It made religion-specific sense when a little-known Zoroastrian group in Texas reached out, proposing that FACTS build a similar facility on their property. (The researchers politely declined.) But at this point, more than two years later, these inquiries make up about one in three of the calls FACTS receives about donation. “They usually say, flat-out, ‘I want to be eaten by vultures,’” says Sophia Mavroudas, who coordinates with donors. “Some are interested in Tibetan sky burial—but we’re here, in this country,” so the body farm is the next best thing.

In the Oxford American, Alex Mar goes to San Marcos, Texas to visit the Forensic Anthropology Center, which contains the largest of America’s five “body farms.” Body farms are research facilities where families or individuals can donate their bodies for scientific studies, like how our bodies decay when left out in the sun and exposed to nature for weeks at a time.

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Photo: Robert Hensley